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Ares I-X rocket hauled to launch pad for critical test flight

Planned test flight next week could help shape the future of America's manned space program. Rocket is a key element in NASA's post-shuttle Constellation program.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--NASA's towering Ares I-X rocket was hauled to the launch pad early Tuesday for blastoff October 27 on a $445 million unmanned test flight that likely will play a major role in the ongoing debate about NASA's post-shuttle manned space program.

The slow trip to pad 39B began at 1:39 a.m. EDT Tuesday when a powerful crawler-transporter carrying the Ares I-X rocket and its mobile launch platform slowly pulled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. Powerful spotlights illuminated the vehicle as it emerged from the VAB, providing a spectacular view of the slender white rocket against the dark of a cloudy night.

The Ares I-X rocket begins the slow trip from the Vehicle Assembly Building to launch pad 39B for work to ready the booster for launch Oct. 27. Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now

The tip of the 327-foot-tall rocket, anchored to the mobile launch platform by four massive bolts at the base of the booster's flared aft skirt, was expected to sway back and forth up to a foot during rollout, depending on the wind and other factors. But data from sensors measuring stresses on the four hold-down posts indicated the rocket was stiffer than computer models suggested and the booster was mounted atop pad 39B without incident by 9:17 a.m.

"This is great, this is huge," said Bob Ess, the Ares I-X mission manager. "This is a milestone that's been in our planning for years, rollout to the pad. It's hard to believe it's here. We've been doing this for three-and-a-half, four years and there it is, all done. It's ready to fly."

Liftoff is targeted for 8 a.m. on October 27. Backup opportunities are available October 28 and 29 if needed.

The Ares I rocket is a key element in NASA's post-shuttle Constellation program, which calls for replacing the iconic orbiters with a safer, lower-cost rocket to ferry astronauts to low-Earth orbit and development of a large, unmanned heavy lift rocket - the Ares V - that would support eventual expeditions to the moon.

The Obama administration currently is reassessing NASA's manned space program and evaluating five options developed by an independent panel of space experts led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. Only one of the five options includes the Ares I. But in recent hearings, lawmakers expressed reluctance to scrap the Constellation architecture and it's not yet clear what action the Obama administration might take, or when a decision will be made.

Given that backdrop in the policy arena, the planned test flight of the Ares I-X could prove critical to the future of the Constellation program. While a success would not guarantee a continuation of Constellation, a failure could prove fatal.

"You can't avoid that," former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who oversaw the implementation of the Constellation program, said in an interview. "Now, I'll say right on the heels of that remark I think that's regrettable. You don't hinge decision making on one test flight. I mean, that's not good engineering. But I think it's unavoidable that policy makers will look to the success or failure of this flight as a key to future decisions."

The 1.8-million-pound Ares I-X rocket is made up of a four-segment shuttle solid-fuel booster, a dummy fifth segment, a dummy second stage, and a mockup of an Orion crew capsule and escape rocket. More than 700 sensors are mounted on the rocket to determine actual performance and the stresses the vehicle experiences, along with three television cameras.

NASA's Ares I-X rocket is moved into position atop pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. William Harwood

Like any shuttle booster, the Ares I-X will fire for two minutes, boosting the vehicle to an altitude of about 130,000 feet and a velocity of nearly five times the speed of sound. At that point, roughly 43 miles due east of the Kennedy Space Center, the first stage will separate from the dummy upper stage and fall to the Atlantic Ocean in a test of new parachutes designed for the operational Ares I. The dummy upper stage, which will not be recovered, will crash into the ocean some 147 miles from the space center.

The cost of the Ares I-X project, including the rocket, launch pad modifications, computer modeling and data analysis, is expected to be around $445 million.

"We're incredibly excited to be on the cusp of flying the system, seeing what Ares I can do," Jeff Hanley, Constellation program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, told CBS News.

The goals of the test flight are to verify computer models and flight characteristics during the critical first two minutes of flight when aerodynamic stresses are most severe.

While the real Ares I rocket features a first-stage booster with five fuel segments, engineers say the four-segment Ares I-X vehicle will closely mimic the flying characteristics of the manned version.

Engineers are especially interested in the acoustic environment a few seconds after launch, when the reflected sound of the accelerating booster hits the vehicle, causing vibrations that will be transmitted through the structure, and later, when the rocket accelerates through the speed of sound and then experiences maximum dynamic pressure, or "max Q."

A space shuttle typically experiences between 720 and 750 pounds per square foot at max Q, but Ares 1-X will experience around 850 psf. Data from the test flight will tell engineers what sort of environmental conditions sensitive electronics might be subjected to and whether mitigations are needed.

Other areas of interest are longitudinal thrust oscillations and how much the vehicle rolls about its long axis.

Based on data from recent shuttle flights and the test firing of a five-segment Ares booster in Utah, Hanley said engineers do not believe thrust oscillation, a phenomenon that occurs toward the end of a booster's firing, is a major problem. Even so, current plans for the Ares I rocket call for springs, part of a passive "soft-ride" system, to be used between the first and second stages and between the second stage and the Orion crew capsule to damp out any significant vibrations.

Engineers also are studying an innovative system that would use the mass of the second-stage liquid oxygen in an eventual manned rocket to damp out unwanted vibration.

Roll control also doesn't appear to be a major issue, engineers say. All solid-fuel rockets experience some amount of roll due to the behavior of the high-speed exhaust plume and Ares I-X is equipped with roll control thrusters on the dummy second stage to counteract any unwanted motion.

Another issue involves the rocket's sideways drift as it climbs away from the launch pad. For the Ares I-X launch, the booster's nozzle will be canted slightly just after ignition to ensure a "walk-off" away from the launch pad gantry. This is not intended to prevent a crash into the tower, which engineers say is not a concern. Rather, it is to prevent the rocket's exhaust plume from damaging the pad if the launch-day winds push it toward the gantry.