NASA's New Rocket Passes Early Design Review
An artist's interpretation of NASA's Ares I rocket launching spaceward.
Credit: NASA.

The rocket slated to launch NASA?s new manned spaceship on missions to Earth orbit and ultimately the moon passed a milestone review late Wednesday, space agency officials said.

A panel of 24 engineers signed off on the preliminary design review of NASA?s Ares I rocket, the two-stage booster for the agency?s space shuttle replacement - the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. NASA hopes to launch the first manned tests of rocket in 2014, four years after its space shuttle fleet retires.

?It?s a big day,? said Doug Cooke, NASA?s deputy administrator for exploration systems, told reporters after the review. ?It is an important milestone in the exploration effort.?

Not since 1973, when engineers took an early look at the agency?s space shuttle plan, has NASA performed a preliminary design review for a rocket intended to launch astronauts into space.

?We poked and prodded ourselves pretty good today,? said Steve Cook, manager of NASA?s Ares project at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Cook and his team plan to hold a separate review next summer to revisit plans to add shock absorbers to the Ares I aimed at dampening excessive vibrations during launch. A final integrated review of the entire rocket is scheduled for March 2011.

Jeff Hanley, manager of NASA?s Constellation program overseeing Orion and Ares rocket development, said the review process for the Orion capsules has been delayed from November of this year to some time in 2009 due to funding issues. Funding challenges also forced NASA to push back its internal target for the first crewed Orion launches from 2013 to 2014 last month.

?We?ve gone through a redo of the budget and scheduled and moved the program schedule,? Hanley said. The first unmanned test of the Ares rocket, the Ares I-X launch, is now slated to fly in June 2009 after being delayed from April of that year, he added.

NASA?s Constellation program currently expects to spend about $3 billion a year for Orion and Ares development through 2010, Hanley said.

Under NASA?s current vision, Orion is slated to begin operational flights no later than 2015 to ferry six astronauts to the International Space Station, with four-astronaut teams due to make the next moon shots by 2020. A separate heavy lift rocket, the Ares V, would carry other cargo and the lunar lander for moon missions.

The Ares I rocket?s first stage consists of a five-segment solid rocket booster similar to the four-segment ones used to launch space shuttles today. The upper stage is powered by a liquid propellant-fueled J-2X main engine derived from the engines that lofted NASA?s Saturn 1B and Saturn V boosters during the Apollo program.

?This is where we really wrapped the entire vehicle together and make sure that we?ve got a sound design from stem to stern,? Cook told reporters. ?It?s really a big step in our journey to launch.?

Cook said that 10 percent of the questions raised during today?s Ares I review are still pending resolution, including issues surrounding the separation of the rocket?s two stages, noise related to the booster?s flight through Earth?s atmosphere and what types of weather to harden the vehicle against during ascent.

?We?d like to be able to fly though some clouds,? Cook said, adding that his team needs to determine if Ares I will have to deal with hail or other weather. ?And as well, lightning. Do we need to take a direct lightning strike??

The goal, he added, is to have a rocket a bit hardier than NASA?s current three-shuttle fleet.

?We?re going to have a much more robust vehicle than the orbiter,? Cook said.

  • Video - Mock Orion Capsule Crashes to Earth
  • Video - NASA's Constellation Journey Begins: Part 1, Part 2
  • Video - Back to the Moon with NASA's Constellation