Some Assembly Required
Inside the assembly building, Ares I-X will come to life. By the time they finish, engineers will have spent several weeks stacking the rocket’s components, delicately maneuvering one piece on top of another with massive cranes. The completed Ares I-X will be nearly identical to Ares I from the outside: a sleek, two-stage rocket with the crew module on top, as far away from the propulsion system as possible. To make the test-flight data as accurate as possible, it will also be similar in mass and size, standing approximately 99 meters tall, varying from 3.7 to 5.5 meters in diameter, and weighing about 816,000 kilograms when fully fueled.
Three more unmanned test flights are planned after the August launch. Ares I-Y will be identical to the final rocket–nothing simulated–and is tentatively scheduled for launch in 2013. The Orion 1 and 2 launches, designed to test the crew module, are planned for the following year, and the first manned launch of Ares I is set for 2015.
NASA is staking its future on long-term exploration, moving beyond low Earth orbit and using the Ares rockets to get there. “The space shuttle has been a great machine, but we need a vehicle [with] better safety and reliability, and with more capabilities,” says Cook. Ares I will have greater range than the shuttle and will cost less to maintain and launch, he says, so it will be possible to venture farther into space, and more often. When Ares V is completed, NASA hopes to build an outpost on the moon, sustaining a human presence there by 2020. The base will allow them to research and test new technologies useful for manned exploration of Mars. Says Cook, “This is what we came to NASA to do.”