Last week the worldwide space community turned their collective eyes back towards the Cape Canaveral to bear witness to NASA’s first new launch system in over 25 years. I lamented recently that the whole thing was mostly pointless and was mostly a PR stunt done for the purpose of “showing progress” to congress and upper NASA management but that didn’t detract from the test appearing to be a blazing success (go here for a great video, no embedding this time around folks). It didn’t explode in an expensive fireball, veer off course or fail completely unlike many first runs of most launch systems. By all accounts they did well.
The launch wasn’t without its issue though, the main one being some damage to the stage booster which was discovered when the divers when to recover it. Just like the space shuttle the first stage booster on the Ares I is reusable and detaches itself from the craft long before they reach orbital speed. They then deploy a set of parachutes and land somewhere in the Atlantic for recovery by one of NASA’s naval vessels. It appears that a couple of these failed after they deployed causing the booster to descend much quicker than it should causing the dent on splash down. It’s nothing major really and it’s something a test like this is designed to sort out.
If you watched the video you’d notice that towards the end when the stages were separating that the upper stage didn’t continue on the trajectory that you’d expect, it sort of fell by the wayside. When I first saw it I thought that it was unusual but wrote it off mostly due to the sub-orbital trajectory. In truth its really due to the fact that the payload is a dummy and doesn’t have an engine of its own. You see the Ares I-X could never deliver a payload into orbit as the second stage needs to boost itself. This is why it appears to tumble away from the lower stage, it has no power of its own.
Another issue they encountered was thrust oscillation, or more commonly referred to POGO. In fact it was experienced by the majority of the Apollo astronauts as the Saturn V rocket design unfortunately lent itself to this occurring. It was initially fixed by turning off the center engine and later by a POGO dampener (flown first on Apollo 14) so it’s not like NASA hasn’t dealt with it before. To their credit though it was close to what the shuttle currently experiences, although it’s not a particularly notable feat since it’s basically a ramped up part of the shuttle.
There was also some damage to launch pad 39B due to the fact that the Ares I-X took off at an angle, to avoid part of it, which faced the exhaust at the launch structure. It appears that they knew about this well in advance so I have no idea why they didn’t modify the structure prior to launch. I’d probably point that to budgetary and time constraints, but it still seems silly to knowingly cause damage to your launch facilities.
Overall I’d have to give NASA credit for flying a mission that I had to really nit pick at. Apart from the points I groaned about in the past the actual test itself provided them with a lot of useful data and showed them the direction they needed to go in. I’d be even more happy with them if they’d flown a fully blown Ares I but I’ll take whatever I can get from NASA these days. 🙂