With the future of NASA's embattled moon program in doubt, Alliant Techsystems test-fired a huge five-segment solid-fuel booster in Utah Thursday, a ground-shaking demonstration designed to collect performance data for a new rocket intended to replace the space shuttle.
Generating 22 million horsepower, the lengthened 154-foot-long shuttle booster ignited with a torrent of flame at 3 p.m. EDT, sending a towering column of dirty brown exhaust into the Utah sky as hundreds of spectators looked on. Two minutes later, after consuming 1.4 million pounds of solid propellant, the rocket burned out.
"After witnessing what we just saw, it's pretty easy to become speechless," said Alex Priskos, first stage manager for Ares Projects at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "That was quite remarkable. This did exactly what we wanted to do. We are confident we're going to get all the data we wanted to get out of this test. I think the team did a great job, we got the test we wanted to get. ... We are very, very pleased. The data looks great."
Said Charles Precourt, vice president and general manager of space launch systems for ATK: "It's a very humbling experience when you think about harnessing the kind of energy we just unleashed today, 3.6 million pounds of thrust. Our engineers in the back rooms are ecstatic, the preliminary indications look wonderful."
NASA plans to use a five-segment shuttle booster as the first stage of its Ares I rocket, one of two being designed as part of the post-shuttle Constellation program. Carrying a hydrogen-fueled second stage, the Ares I is designed to boost Orion crew capsules into low-Earth orbit for flights to the International Space Station and eventual trips to the moon.
Two five-segment boosters would be used to help launch a huge new unmanned rocket called the Ares V designed to loft Altair lunar landers into orbit. After docking with an Orion capsule, the Ares V would boost the combined spacecraft to the moon. NASA hopes to establish long-duration research stations on the moon in the early 2020s.
But a presidential panel reviewing manned space flight options submitted an executive summary to the White House earlier this week saying NASA does not have enough money in its projected budget to pay for the Constellation program.
In a list of five options, the panel strongly favored development of commercial launch vehicles and capsules, although no such systems currently exist.
Until the White House and the Office of Science and Technology Policy make a decision on what space architecture to support, NASA is pressing ahead with development of the Constellation program and the Ares 1 rocket.
An Ares 1-X test rocket, made up of a standard four-segment shuttle booster, a dummy second stage and a mock-up of an Orion capsule, currently is stacked and undergoing checkout in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA plans to launch the rocket from complex 39B around October 31.
"Here in another six weeks or so, we're going to be taking the next great step with a flight test of the prototype of this vehicle," said Precourt, a former shuttle commander. "We're just really, really thrilled we've achieved this milestone."