Wednesday, 28 January 2009

NASA To Test New-Generation Space Rocket Listen Now [4 min 13 sec] add to playlist All Things Considered, January 24, 2009 ·

Workers piece together the bottom of the Ares I
Workers move the capsule of the Ares I-X.

The aging shuttle fleet is scheduled to be mothballed next year, after construction of the international space station is complete. Now Ess is obsessed with the first test flight of the shuttle's replacement. This time around, though, it's his job.

Ess works at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., where he's in charge of the Ares I-X mission — NASA's effort to test out a new rocket and space capsule design by blasting off an experimental version from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The unmanned test flight is scheduled for July.

"This is the first time that NASA's gone through and done an unmanned test flight in a long, long time, since the Apollo era," says Ess.

He explains that the first flight of the space shuttle wasn't unmanned — it had two people on board. "There really was no other way to do it," says Ess. "The space shuttle required a lot of human intervention to fly it, and we needed people inside to actually do it."

But people aren't expected to ride on the Ares I-X until around 2015. NASA's plan is that the rocket will ultimately carry up a crew capsule similar to the one that took astronauts up during the Apollo era.


A military plane will take the capsule down to Florida on Thursday. There it will join other pieces of hardware, some real, some just fake stand-ins. If all goes well, Ess says, workers will stack them all up this spring to create a rocket that stands more than 320 feet tall.

"This vehicle is almost twice as tall as the space shuttle," says Ess, who adds that the rocket will be about 18 feet in diameter. "So it's very long and it's very thin."

During the first test flight, engineers will get real-world data on whether their flight control system can handle this long, thin design.


The idea is that this test flight will be followed by several more. But with a new president and a new administration in Washington, it's not clear if that plan will change — or how many Americans would even notice if it did.


"It's hard to explain going from a space shuttle to this new vehicle," Ess says. "Our minds are so used to the space shuttle, for 20 years, and before that, Apollo."


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