CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? The apparent success of NASA?s first test flight of a new experimental moon rocket has the American space agency beaming with joy.
The Ares I-X booster soared into the sky on a two-minute mission to test out a brand-new rocket design intended to carry humans back to the moon. The short flight, just six minutes in all, comes as the White House reviews NASA?s spaceflight future.
"It was a spectacular day," said a jubilant Ares I-X mission manager Bob Ess after the launch. "The vehicle flew even better than we expected."
After hours of waiting out cloudy weather, NASA seized on a narrow patch of clear sky to loft the vehicle at 11:30 a.m. EDT (1530 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center here. The flight cost $445 million and marked NASA?s first test of a new rocket for human spaceflight since the shuttle?s 1981 debut.
"We worked methodically, listened to the vehicle and let the vehicle show us it was ready to fly," said Jeff Hanley, head of NASA's Constellation program, which encompasses Ares I-X. "We were ready when Mother Nature was ready, and we took our opportunity, and what a great outcome. It flew straight as an arrow."
By all appearances, the untried rocket performed stunningly, though it will take engineers months to fully analyze the trove of data the flight provided. Over 700 sensors on the booster, plus cameras on the ground and an airborne plane, returned meticulous readings of the rocket's trip to study how much the rocket rolled, how well the parachutes deployed to carry the first stage booster down safely, and myriad other parameters.
Engineers are particularly interested in data surrounding the rocket's first stage separation, which occured two minutes into the flight. The unpowered dummy upper stage appeared to begin tumbling earlier than expected shortly after the two stages separated.
"The vehicle flew well and we're going to get a lot of data back," said Doug Cooke, director of NASA's exploration systems. "We're going to learn a lot to stand us in a good stead for the future."
The flight was a milestone for the planned Ares I rocket program, slated to replace the space shuttles after they retire.
"It's a sense of validation that the course that we have laid out is executable," Hanley said. "An early demonstration like this puts aside any doubts in our minds, if we had them, as to the flyability of this particular design. We have a design that will do the country service if it is put into service."
The flight comes at a tenuous time for NASA, when the future of American human spaceflight is up for review by the Obama administration.
A recent report commissioned by President Obama called into question whether Ares I would be ready by 2015 as planned, and whether it even makes sense to build the rocket, or if perhaps commercial companies could step in to create the next vehicle to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit, freeing up NASA to focus on a larger heavy-lift rocket. The report suggested that Ares I may not be ready to launch astronauts aboard Orion craft until 2017, though NASA maintained Wednesday that 2015 is achievable with sufficient funding.
"Think about what we just did," launch director Ed Mango told flight controllers just after liftoff. "Our first flight test, and the only thing we're waiting on is weather."
Whatever the ultimate fate of Ares I, mission managers said the test flight was worth it. The successful flight does help establish Ares I's feasibility, mission managers said.
"This test will be a value regardless of any decisions in the future," Cooke said. "Were learning about validating our models. It's about learning form it."
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SPACE.com is providing full coverage of NASA's Ares I-X test flight with Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Managing Editor Tariq Malik in New York. Click here for mission updates.