The 327 ft tall Ares I-X is currently waiting inside Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building for its delayed 4.2 mile rollout to the launchpad. Originally scheduled for Monday, the rollout was postponed by 24 hours when engineers spotted a nitrogen gas leak on Oct. 14th. It would appear the problem has been rectified and we can look forward to seeing the tallest rocket on the planet roll out to Pad 39B by Tuesday morning.
Unfortunately, the Ares I-X test flight is generating little excitement, even though NASA is heralding the scheduled Oct. 27th launch as “the First Flight of a New Era.” When there’s talk that the Constellation Program might be scrapped all together to allow for a cheaper alternative, there’s little wonder that even the most excited space flight enthusiasts are looking at the slender white frame of the Ares I-X thinking, will this be the only launch of the Constellation Program?
This negativity isn’t unfounded either. As we await the final report from the Augustine Commission (to be delivered to the White House later this week), one of the conclusions could be that Constellation is more hassle for NASA to complete rather than to scrap.
In this case Ares I-X will have become a very expensive firework.
Although it is unlikely the White House will decide on a course of action before Oct. 27th, I can’t help but think the outcome of Constellation would have been decided before the Ares I-X has even blasted off. No matter how well the four-stage test rocket performs during its 28 mile-high suborbital flight, the project could still be shelved.
The Oct. 27th launch will be an amazing event in itself (and I’m dead excited to see that monster thunder into the skies), and unless an overlooked technical problem rears its ugly head, we’ll see the test launch of a brand new rocket system. What’s not awesome about that? If the Ares I-X blasts off perfectly, and the Ares design is proven to be free from vibrations and other design flaws, could a proof of concept sway the decision in favour of keeping Constellation in development? Possibly.
Regardless of the conclusions to come out of the Augustine Commission, the launch of Ares I-X will mark a crossroads for manned spaceflight. History will be written, but will history favour the Constellation Program? I don’t think I could place a bet either way.
Although there are doubts about Constellation, and NASA recently announced a “plan B” launch option for a return trip to the Moon, Orion development continues as planned. Next up is the development of the Orion shock absorbers, intended to take the sting out of the return capsule’s landing.
Tests are currently being carried out at the Landing and Impact Research Facility in NASA’s Langley Research Center on the seat pallet that will protect the Orion astronauts’ from the shock of touch-down. It is hoped Orion will be a land-anywhere capsule, including land and water. In fact, I am a little bit excited about the planned landing spot in the Pacific Ocean, not far from Catalina Island, off the Los Angeles coastline. That’s just down the road and a small swim from me!
To test the pallet and its “energy-absorbing struts,” the 20,000-pound test article is dropped 18 feet onto a crushable honeycomb material designed to simulate different landing surfaces. —Aviation Week
The seat shock absorbers won’t only be used for landing, it is hoped they will mitigate much of the launch vibration effects caused by the Ares I crew launch vehicle. These tests are a result of studies of how much vibration crew members can take before it becomes difficult to read instrumentation displays and react to situations during launch.
Well, I didn’t see this coming. On setting up the Brian Bat Foundation, I was sure NASA was not to blame for Brian’s sad demise. However, a Florida state official has started legal proceedings against the space agency.
According to Florida transport law, if a truck hits an endangered animal on state highways, the company is liable. As NASA is the state’s (actually, the world’s) largest “logistics company”, it too falls under the umbrella of this little known animal protection technicality.
“NASA enjoys total freedom of the airspace above the state, however the agency must still abide by the laws of the state, no matter how insignificant the rules may appear when compared with the endeavors of US activities in space.” — Statement by the District Attorney’s Office, Florida
In response to the surprise legal action, NASA has already put together a solution that will rid the future Constellation launchpad of any more roosting bats like Brian. There are also plans in place to hinder access to the pad by smaller mammals and reptiles. According to a Cape Canaveral launch safety officer, a lot of time is spent on the gruesome task of removing the carcasses of rats, mice, gophers and rabbits. “If you thought roadkill was bad, imagine it roasted,” the officer added. The proposed Ares anti-bat mesh suddenly seems like a step in the right direction (pictured top).
So, it would appear Brian was only the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps the well publicised death of the little guy wont be in vain after all…
NASA has just signed two very large cheques for two private spaceflight companies, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corporation. The contracts will allow private launches to re-supply the International Space Station beyond Shuttle decommissioning in 2010, and SpaceX claims they could be doing it by next year.
These contracts represent some of the largest ever given to private enterprise, and demonstrates the trust the US space agency is placing in these space start-ups. The contracts are worth $3.5 billion combined; $1.9 billion for Orbital Sciences and $1.6 billion for SpaceX, equating to 8 flights from Orbital and 12 flights from SpaceX. For now, these contracts are for cargo deliveries only, replacing the Shuttle and providing a viable alternative to the Russian Progress flights. Critically, the US now has a very real prospect to bridge the “5-year gap” from Shuttle retirement (2010) and Constellation launch (2015).
All we need now is for SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket system to become “human rated” and we could see the first routine commercial launches of US astronauts before the Constellation Program is even rolled out onto the launchpad. Very exciting times…
When you look up on a starry night, what do you see?
Do you see a Universe with endless potential and resources for mankind to discover? Or, do you see an unnecessary challenge; too expensive, too risky and too pointless to consider wasting billions of tax-payers dollars on?
Right now, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is pondering the future of US manned spaceflight, and I’m sure they are addressing each of the above questions in turn. There has always been an unhealthy mix of politics and spin when it comes to the way NASA is funded, and while it would appear NASA’s future is confronted with a flood of budget cuts and red tape, the Obama administration will want to put a positive light on whatever direction they choose.
However, it will be hard to justify a funding cut (and therefore a delay) of the Constellation Program. We already have a “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning and proposed Ares launch (2010-2015), if this block on US-administered manned spaceflight is extended, the damage inflicted on NASA will be irreversible. However, I doubt we’d ever be able to measure the permanent damage caused to mankind. Continue reading “The Space Exploration Crisis”
In only three days, the USA will take to the polls and vote in their next president. Presently, Sen. Barack Obama (Democrat) is holding the lead in the opinion polls, in front of Sen. John McCain (Republican). Opinion polls, although indicative of the current mood of voters, are by no means fool-proof, this election could go either way.
This is the first US election I have been in the country for, and from what I’ve seen and heard from both leading candidates have been worrying yet significant. It is no secret that the US is suffering every “crisis” in the book (housing crisis, credit crisis, economic crisis, health care crisis…), but the one election issue that is key in my mind is the growing space exploration crisis. Whilst this may be low on the list of national priorities at the moment, the next few years will be critical to the international balance of space exploration dominance for decades to come. The next few years, if unchecked, could be the most challenging period NASA has ever faced.
On September 28th, Elon Musk proved he wasn’t a dreamer and blasted the world’s first commercial rocket — Falcon 1 — into Earth orbit. SpaceX have put their previous launch failures behind them, rightfully filing them under “learning curve.”
The team at NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission control have started to switch off instrumentation on the robotic lander after five months of astounding science (even after surviving the “7-minutes of terror” on May 25th, finding proof of water, overcoming technical issues and multiplying our understanding of the chemistry on an alien planet). Plus the armada of satellites orbiting the Red Planet. Oh yes, and those crazy rovers that just keep on rollin’.
Whether you are surprised by this news or not, it is a big development for the future of NASA. An internal email within the space agency has instructed staff to begin preliminary planning for a feasibility study into extending the life of the Space Shuttle fleet until 2015. This isn’t a one year extension, this isn’t just one extra flight, this is a full five year extension beyond the scheduled decommissioning date set by NASA.
This email, although downplayed by NASA sources, appears to show a U-turn in the political climate behind the agency’s closed doors. So what prompted the decision to commence a feasibility study? Could the Shuttle be safely flown after 2010? Continue reading “The Shuttle Could Fly Beyond 2010”