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. 🙂
They say there’s no good fishing story that doesn’t have at least one lie in it and the same can be said for space missions and delays. Look at practically any space mission and you’re more than likely to find that it ran over time for one reason or another and really it’s to be expected. Space travel is still on the bleeding edge of human capability and even routine missions can have unknowns in them that will cause the critical path to be affected. It should then come as no surprise that NASA’s latest endeavour, the Ares I-X which forms part of the Constellation program, has suffered the same fate:
A faulty part in the steering system for NASA’s new Ares I-X rocket has delayed the booster’s trek to its Florida launch pad by at least a day as engineers work to fix the glitch.
The rocket, a suborbital version of NASA’s new Ares I booster designed to launch astronauts into orbit and ultimately back to the moon, was slated to roll out to Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center Monday for a planned Oct. 27 test launch. But a malfunctioning hydraulics component at the base of the towering, 327-foot (100-meter) tall rocket has stalled that plan, NASA spokesperson George Diller told SPACE.com.
“It’s at least a day [of delay], but it’s still kind of a developing story,” Diller said. “We’ll have to see how things go for us.”
Now I’m usually one of the first to fawn all over whatever NASA is doing at any point in time but the Ares I-X booster is a rare moment where I question what the heck they think they’re doing. For the most part the rocket is nothing like the final Ares I booster will be like, namely with the missing 5th part of the first stage and the second and third stages being just mock ups. I can understand the Orion capsule on top being a dummy payload, but for the rest of it I’m raising a cautious eyebrow as to how much useful data such a launch can gather.
The wiki article on the booster shows what NASA thinks they’ll get out of this mission:
Ares I-X will be the first test flight of a launch vehicle like the Ares I. The test flight objectives include:
- Demonstrating control of a dynamically similar vehicle using control algorithms similar to those used for Ares I.
- Performing an in-flight separation/staging event between an Ares I-similar First Stage and a representative Upper Stage.
- Demonstrating assembly and recovery of an Ares I-like First Stage at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
- Demonstrating First Stage separation sequencing, and measuring First Stage atmospheric entry dynamics, and parachute performance.
- Characterizing the magnitude of integrated vehicle roll torque throughout First Stage flight.
The word “similar” used in the first two points is what makes me uncomfortable with the whole endeavour. They’ve publicly acknowledged that the Ares I-X is significantly different from the final flight hardware and that this particular stack will never be built again. The next two points demonstrate that they’re just trying to test out the construction and roll out process of the rocket, something they could do without actually launching anything. The last point is somewhat important, but it is lost when 80% of the mission seems completely pointless. Many of the secondary objectives mentioned could also be performed on a completed Ares I stack so the question remains: why the heck are they doing this?
For the most part I believe it is to show that they’re making progress with George W.’s vision for space exploration. Gone are the high budgets of the late 60’s and the focus of an entire nation, nowadays it’s all about what the government is spending on and what the public is getting out of it. The current rocket has been in development for about 5 years and it’s hard to go that long on developing something without showing that you’ve actually done some work. The Ares I-X is then a demonstration to appease the political overlords and hopefully draw some press so that the rest of the constellation program doesn’t get completely canned. Whilst I can appreciate the situation NASA has been put in I still would’ve liked to have seen what kind of delay they would’ve had to go through in order to launch a fully stacked Ares I right off the bat instead of the boondoggle they’re rolling out now.
It makes them look even worse when a company that has been built up from the ground from scratch will be launching a fully functional rocket with similar capabilities to the Ares I sometime soon. I am of course referring to the Falcon-9 from SpaceX, and it really demonstrates how bloated with bureaucracy has become when they can do the work of thousands with just 800 employees.
I guess I’m just nostalgic for the old days when space was seen as something of a national pride and the bureaucracy was kept to a minimum. I’m still hoping they continue down the Ares path however as the the Ares V will be a phenomenal power house unlike nothing we’ve seen before. However these kinds of demonstrations do the project’s timeline no good and I’m glad that it is the only one of its kind planned.