Glitch Cancels NASA's First Moon Rocket Test Firing
NASA's Ares I first-stage motor sits on ATK Space System's test stand in Promontory, Utah, awaiting its test firing, set for Aug. 27, 2009. The 154-foot solid rocket motor will produce heat two-thirds the temperature of the sun and its 12-foot-diameter cylinder will deliver 3.6 million pounds of thrust.
Credit: ATK

This story was updated at 7:52 a.m. EDT.

A last-minute glitch forced a NASA contractor on Thursday to call off the first test firing of a new rocket intended to replace the agency?s aging space shuttle fleet and help return astronauts to the moon.

The $75 million test by Alliant Techsystems, Inc. (ATK) in Promontory, Utah, was intended to demonstrate a giant solid rocket booster - the first half of NASA?s Ares I rocket designed to launch the astronauts into orbit after the space shuttle fleet is retired. But a power unit required to point the booster?s engine nozzle properly failed with just 20 seconds remaining in the test countdown.

?This is part of what you do when we do tests, this is part of the job,? said Alex Priskos, first stage manager for NASA?s Ares Projects Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Engineers believe that a fuel valve in an auxiliary power unit that drives the rocket?s booster nozzle hydraulics may have failed, but they aren?t sure why. They will work through the night to hunt its source, experts said.

NASA is now targeting no earlier than Tuesday to reattempt the engine test, which secures the rocket in place on its side for the duration of a static engine firing. Its cancellation Thursday disappointed thousands of onlookers shown in televised NASA video eagerly awaiting the test firing.

The first stage of the Ares I rocket is 154 feet (47 meters) long and is larger than the solid rocket boosters used to launch NASA space shuttles into orbit, though both are built by ATK. It is built to provide up to 3.6 million pounds of thrust, enough to launch the entire 327-foot (100-meter) tall Ares I rocket about 36 miles (58 km) into the sky in just over two minutes.

The shuttles use two solid rocket boosters, each made up of four segments. The Ares I first stage is just one booster, but has an extra, fifth segment designed to add thrust in order to launch Orion spacecraft - the shuttle?s successor - and its liquid-fueled upper stage towards space.

NASA plans to use the Ares I rocket to launch astronauts aboard Orion vehicles by no earlier than 2015, with the first flights bound to the International Space Station. The rocket is part of the agency?s Constellation program to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.

However, an independent committee that reviewed NASA?s moon visions for the Ares I rocket and its larger companion the Ares V booster for the White House found that the agency does not have the funding to support the $108 billion project.

The committee has drawn up several alternative scenarios for President Barack Obama?s consideration and is expected to file its report by the end of the month. Only one of those options includes the Ares I rocket. The others replace it with other rockets or spacecraft.

NASA?s first test of the full-size Ares I rocket, the Ares I-X mission, is currently scheduled for Oct. 31. But that rocket consists of a standard four-segment solid rocket booster topped with a dummy fifth stage, as well as mockups of the booster?s second stage, Orion capsule and escape tower.

The test is designed to demonstrate ground operations as well as the viability of the Ares I concept from liftoff through first stage separation.

  • New Video - NASA?s Ares I-X Test Flight Unveiled
  • Video - Back to the Moon with NASA's Constellation
  • New Video Show - NASA's Vision for Humans in Space