Hubble Repair Delay Puts Ares 1-X Rocket Test on Hold
Artist concept of Ares I-X launch.
Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA's postponement of the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission until at least February is all but certain to delay the first test flight of the U.S. space agency's new astronaut-launching rocket.

NASA has been targeting a late-spring launch out of Florida's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) of Ares 1-X, an early prototype of the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle the agency intends to field in 2015. The Ares 1, derived from the space shuttle solid-rocket motors, will be used to loft NASA's planned Crew Exploration Vehicle into space.

But before NASA can move ahead with the Ares 1-X flight, the agency first needs to make some permanent modifications to a space shuttle launch pad that must remain unchanged until after the Hubble repair mission.

Carol Scott, NASA's Ares 1-X deputy mission manager at KSC, said the basic plan for getting Launch Complex Pad 39B ready for Ares 1-X remains unchanged, but acknowledged in an Oct. 3 interview that a schedule slip appears certain.

"We are all going through schedule assessments especially now with the Hubble delay," Scott said. "I do expect to have a new schedule coming out of that and then I believe schedules will be adjusted at that point."

Although senior NASA officials told reporters prior to the Hubble setback that the Ares 1-X flight likely would not launch before summer, the Ares 1 program and its contractors have continued to target an April 15 launch date.

Scott said a mid-April launch is no longer possible.

"Not with the Hubble delays we have. We would not be able to meet an April 15 date," she said.

Space Shuttle Atlantis was positioned on Launch Complex Pad 39A with a full load of spare parts awaiting its scheduled Oct. 14 launch toward Hubble when the 18-year-old space telescope experienced an onboard computer failure Sept. 27. The glitch was serious enough that NASA wasted little time announcing that the mission would have to be put off for several months.

NASA made the call while a second space shuttle orbiter, Endeavour, was perched atop neighboring Pad 39B being readied for a so-called launch-on-need rescue mission agency officials hope will not be necessary. NASA rules require that for shuttle missions to destinations other than the international space station, a second orbiter must be ready to launch on a rescue mission should something go wrong with the first.

Had the Hubble repair mission lifted off in mid-October as planned, ground crews would have gotten to work almost immediately washing down Atlantis' Mobile Launch Platform and preparing the giant tracked vehicle for a number of modifications needed to support the Ares 1-X flight. Meanwhile, once it was clear that Endeavour would not be needed to rescue a stranded Hubble-repair crew, that orbiter would be moved to Pad 39A for a mid-November launch to the space station. The Mobile Launch Platform used for Atlantis' liftoff then would be rolled out to Pad 39B where it would undergo a planned 10 weeks worth of modifications.

Ground crews also would begin installation of a command, communications and control system and swap out some interfaces between the pad and launch platform, all while continuing to erect a new lightning tower tall enough to protect the roughly 95-meter-tall rocket during the thunderstorms prevalent along the Florida coast during warmer months.

Scott said work on the lightning tower would not be affected by the Hubble delay. She also said a number of key changes planned for the pad were not due to get under way until January or February.

"We're still in design phase so a lot of the [equipment] like the vehicle stabilization system ... aren't slated to come here until April and that will not be affected by Hubble," she said.

Scott said it was too early to determine how much Ares 1-X would be delayed as a result of Hubble's problems. The Ares program, she said, cannot replan the Ares 1-X work until the space shuttle program nails down a new schedule for the Hubble repair mission.

However, Scott said she is hopeful that Hubble's delay will not result in a month-for-month slip for Ares 1-X.

"Because that's what KSC does best — they will go and reprioritize and reprogram to see how they can still meet the earliest date. That's what we do here all the time," she said.

Meanwhile, Ares 1-X flight hardware is starting to ship from various points around the United States. NASA's Cleveland-based Glenn Research Center, for example, has finished construction of an Ares 1-X dummy upper stage and plans to ship that hardware out before the end of October.

Glenn spokeswoman Katherine Martin said a media event is planned for Oct. 22 at the Ohio River port where the dummy rocket stage will begin its journey down to KSC aboard the Delta Mariner, the same vessel that carries Delta 4 rocket stages too big to travel over land.

Scott said having the bulk of the rocket and new ground support hardware on hand before pad modifications begin in earnest actually could permit KSC to work more efficiently than otherwise might have been possible. This could keep a five-month delay in handover of Pad 39B from translating into a five-month delay in the launch of Ares 1-X.

"Hardware deliveries will be at more opportune times within the schedule so we can do more parallel work now than we could have," she said. "They probably will be doing more work in parallel so they may be able to shorten the delay so it may not be the same five-month delay."