Intelligent Machines

NASA’s Next Rocket Ready for Lift Off

The Ares I-X was rolled out to the launch pad in preparation for its historical test flight next week.

Oct 22, 2009
It was a historic moment Tuesday when the Ares I-X, a test rocket for NASA’s next launch vehicle, was rolled out to the launch pad–a crawl that lasted almost seven hours. The event marks the first time in 30 years that a new type of launch vehicle has been moved to the pad. Ares I-X is scheduled to lift off on October 27.
The Ares rockets are a significant part of the Constellation program, NASA’s plan for new manned flights to the moon and possibly to Mars and beyond. Ares I-X is the first new launch vehicle to be tested in nearly four decades. Here the rocket, which is the world’s tallest at 99.6 meters, sits in NASA’s vehicle assembly building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, awaiting its departure to the launch pad.
Ares I-X was assembled inside the VAB (see TR’s feature on the rocket while it was still in pieces). NASA engineers stacked the rocket, piece by piece, on top of a mobile launch platform, a large machine that moves at one-to-two miles per hour carrying the rocket to the launch pad.
The VAB opens its doors so that the rocket can begin crawling to the launch pad. The rocket is comprised of several real and simulated systems. For example, the finished launch vehicle, Ares I, will include a five-segment solid rocket booster. Ares I-X will use only a four-segment reusable solid rocket booster, with a dummy fifth segment stacked on top. The fifth rocket motor will allow Ares I to lift more weight and reach a higher altitude, but it’s not needed for the test flight.
The main goal is to gather data during the first two minutes of ascent, when the rocket is most vulnerable to failures. The rocket is equipped with around 700 sensors that will measure load, pressure, vibration, temperature, acoustics, strain, and movement at different points on the rocket and at different stages of flight. The sensors will gather information on the rocket’s performance in the roughest parts of the atmosphere, on the separation of its stages, and on the recovery of its boosters.
The rocket weights 816,466 kilograms and engineers expected its tip to sway up to 0.3 meters during the rollout. It took almost seven hours for the rocket to reach launch pad 39B, which has been modified for the rocket. The rollout came on the eve of the final report from the Augustine panel, the committee charged with reviewing the future of U.S. human space exploration. Earlier the committee stated that NASA does not have the budget to fund its current plan for exploration, including launching Ares I by 2016 and returning humans to the moon by 2020.