WASHINGTON - NASA shot back Wednesday at recent news reports suggesting the Ares I rocket in development for the past three years is doomed to failure.
Although NASA officials did not mention any media outlet by name, they took issue with an Oct. 26 story in the Orlando Sentinel claiming that concerns that Ares I could crash into its launch tower under certain wind conditions were the latest setback threatening to undo the U.S. space agency?s plans for returning to the Moon.
Doug Cooke, NASA?s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, was up-front about the motive behind Wednesday?s Constellation program media teleconference.
"Some recent new reports about Ares have been inaccurate and draw false conclusions and could be avoided if we are given the opportunity to give the facts of the case," Cooke said.
Steve Cook, manager of the Ares project at NASA?s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., acknowledged that the so-called launch vehicle drift mentioned in the newspaper report was discussed during the Ares I?s preliminary design review that wrapped up in September as something that would have to be addressed. But Cook said that news reports had blown the issue out of proportion.
"First of all, launch vehicles experience lift-off drift primarily due to winds at the launch pad and it?s a manageable phenomenon," Cook said. "In the very heavy wind conditions that we are designed to - 34 knots, which is significantly higher than what shuttle uses today ? Ares I can use its built-in thrust vector controls to steer away from the pad tower ? or fly within reduced wind constraints more similar to those used today on the shuttle. Either one of those by themselves will avoid the issues we?ve got here."
The space shuttle is designed to launch in winds up to 19 knots, or roughly 22 mph (35 kph).
Cook also said that computer simulations showing Ares I crashing into the tower only under certain very specific weather conditions.
"The wind condition that we are concerned about is a southerly wind at 34 knots. In our estimate that would only happen about 0.3 percent of the time in any case," Cook said. "So this is another issue that?s been taken very much out of context."
Cook said Ares I emerged from preliminary design review with multiple, straightforward options for addressing the unlikely scenarios where lift-off drift could cause re-contact with the launch tower.
The Orlando Sentinel and various Web sites also have reported on low morale among engineers working on Ares and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. The newspaper reported in its Oct. 26 story that during Ares? preliminary design review NASA "had to quell near-revolts by astronauts and scientists" concerned about some of the decisions being made by the program. The story quoted an astronaut who left NASA in 2005.
During the Oct. 29 teleconference, NASA astronaut Brent Jett, director of fight crew operations at NASA?s Johnson Space Center, denied any near revolt that had to be tamped down.
"Both [Astronaut Office Chief] Steve Lindsay and I have actively solicited our office for anyone that has a dissenting opinions on whether Ares 1 should proceed forward to [critical design review] and ultimately to become an operational launch vehicle ? and we have not found one person in our office with a dissenting opinion so I don?t know where these stories are coming," Jett said.
During the teleconference, NASA?s Constellation program director Jeff Hanley told reporters that he was expecting a report by early December outlining options for speeding up the first crewed flight of Orion and Ares should NASA be given the direction and resources to do so. NASA is currently shooting for a first crewed flight in September 2014, six months ahead of the date it has promised the White House and Congress it can have the vehicle ready to do. The study, which kicked off in October, is being led by Ralph Roe, the director of the NASA Engineering and Safety Center at Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.
Hanley also said NASA is now targeting July 12 for the first major flight test of the Constellation program, the launch of an Ares 1 prototype dubbed Ares I-X.
NASA had been shooting for April for the Ares I-X, but modifications to Kennedy Space Center launch pad selected for the flight are largely on hold until NASA completes a space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. That mission was postponed last month from October to no earlier than February.
Hanley said the July 12 target for Ares I-X assumes the Hubble mission goes in February. If the Hubble mission does not occur until May, as has been discussed, Hanley said Constellation officials would have to revisit the Ares I-X schedule.
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