NASA Photos Reveal Rare Views of New Rocket, Space Shuttle
At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the 327-foot-tall Ares I-X rocket (left) awaits a late October 2009 liftoff on Launch Pad 39B on its upcoming flight test. In the distance are space shuttle Atlantis (right) atop Launch Pad 39A, and the pads and processing facilities on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.

New NASA photographs have revealed a rare, and ultimately fleeting, glimpse at a pair of rocket ships ? an old space shuttle and a gleaming rocket prototype ? on two different launch pads in Florida.

In the new photographs, taken Oct. 23 from a helicopter, the two launch vehicles stand poised for blast off on seaside pads at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. One is the space shuttle Atlantis, which is being primed for a planned Nov. 16 flight to the International Space Station.

The other rocket is the unmanned Ares I-X ? a suborbital prototype of the new Ares I booster NASA plans to use to launch astronauts to low-Earth orbit after the shuttle fleet retires in the next year or so. It is poised to launch Tuesday at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) from the Pad 39B, but only if the weather allows. A 60 percent chance of bad weather is predicted, NASA officials said.

NASA photographers caught the gleaming white Ares I-X rocket at the modified Pad 39B while Atlantis sat atop the nearby Pad 39A.

?People are very excited,? NASA spokesperson Allard Beutel told SPACE.com. ?Not only is that view unique, but it does represent one of the fundamental roles of NASA. It?s doing space exploration and pushing those experimental craft forward.?

It is a rare sight for two different NASA rockets, both envisioned to eventually carry astronauts, to be at the launch pad at the same time. In 1966, NASA launched the Gemini 11 mission with two astronauts aboard while a Saturn V 500F test rocket, a facilities demonstrator, sat atop a launch pad.

Atlantis is a mere 1.6 miles (2.5 km) away from Ares I-X. Though the new rocket is an untried vehicle, and so presents some risk of failure, NASA officials said they are comfortable with the arrangement, which they calculated to be about a 1-in-10,000 chance of catastrophic injury to the shuttle if something goes wrong.

Tale of two rockets

The Ares I-X rocket towers 327 feet (100 meters) over Pad 39B, which until recently hosted NASA shuttles but was originally built to host the mighty Saturn V rockets that sent astronauts to the moon in the late 1960s and 1970s. The rocket is 14 stories taller than Atlantis and is the world?s tallest rocket currently in service or ready to fly.

In the photos, Ares I-X is completely visible, a tall, slender booster that is skinnier on the bottom than at the top because its second stage ? a dummy segment for this test ? is thicker than the first stage solid rocket motor.

By contrast, Atlantis appears short and squat. It stands at 184 feet (56 meters) tall, but only the back of its 15-story external tank is visible. The shuttle itself is shrouded by the protective Rotating Service Structure to guard it against rain and provide access to key areas.

The last time NASA had two vehicles at the launch pad simultaneously was actually earlier this year in May, when the shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour sat atop Pad 39A and Pad 39B just before Atlantis launched to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope.

But it has been 34 years since a rocket other than a space shuttle has sat atop a NASA launch pad.

One-of-its-kind launch test

Beutel said the helicopter photo shoot caught a piece of history with the rocket snapshots. In addition to the one-of-a-kind Ares I-X rocket, two other unmanned boosters ? an Atlas 5 and a Delta 4 ? sit atop their launch pads at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, he said.

The suborbital Ares I-X mission is the first of three test flights, each more ambitious than the last, envisioned to lead to a fully operationally Ares I rocket and Orion spacecraft ? NASA?s shuttle successor.

But the next test flight, an Ares I-Y launch that would include a full second stage instead of the mock-ups aboard Ares I-X, is not slated for any earlier than 2014.

Whether or not Ares I will actually be the shuttle replacement remains to be seen. President Barack Obama is currently reviewing the results of an independent panel that surveyed NASA's future plans. He is set to make a decision soon about whether to proceed with Ares I and the rest of the Constellation program that plans to take humans back to the moon and beyond, or whether to steer NASA in a new direction that may or may not include the rocket.

That uncertainty, however, has not curtailed the enthusiasm around NASA?s Kennedy Space Center for the upcoming Ares I-X launch. Beutel said NASA doesn?t expect the same number of spectators as a shuttle mission, but the agency is expecting a large public turn out.

?Thousands will be on-site here watching and other people will be turning out from neighboring cities,? Beutel said. ?More than for a typical expendable launch vehicle for sure.?

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correctly reflect that NASA launched the manned Gemini 11 mission while a test Saturn V rocket was on the launch pad in 1966.

SPACE.com will provide 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 live launch coverage and mission coverage. Live updates begin Tuesday at 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT).