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Bad Weather Delays Launch Test of NASA's New Rocket

This story was updated at 11:41 a.m.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? Bad weather and a series of unluckyevents thwarted repeated attempts by NASA to launch the prototype Ares I-Xrocket on a test flight Tuesday.

Launch teams tried to launchthe rocket several times over the course of four hours, but clouds, windsand the threat of rain prevented the flight. NASA's next chance to launch the untestedrocket comes Wednesday.

"We had some opportunities, we just didn't get there -the weather didn't cooperate," said launch director Ed Mango.

Multiple Delays

At one point the $445 million rocket was poisedto launch to take advantage of a brief window of clear skies, only to behindered in the final minutes by an errant boat that had strayed into thedanger zone which the rocket would flyover after liftoff. After that issue was cleared NASA intended to try againa few minutes later, but a cloud was spotted passing over the launch pad,violating weather concerns.

Before that, a sock that covered a sensor instrument on thetop of the rocket got stalled as crews attempted to pull the cover off. Butthat issue, too, was resolved.

"There was huge applause here in the control room whenit finally broke off and came clear," said Ares I-X deputy mission managerJon Cowart. "Glad they got that turned around and got that fixed. But thatdid delay us."

The test rocket was originally slated to lift off thismorning at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) from LaunchPad 39B here at Kennedy Space Center. NASA had until noon EDT (1600 GMT)today to loft the rocket before its four-hour launch window was up and thelaunch team had to stand down until Wednesday. All the booster needed was about10 minutes of clear skies within that time.

Launch was often foiled by a new"triboelectrification rule" - which prevents the vehicle fromblasting off into clouds because it could trigger static electricity that mayinterfere with onboard instruments.

Slightly better weather conditions are expected forWednesday, when weather officer Kathy Winters has predicted a 60 percent chanceof clear skies. That's an improvement over Tuesday's forecast, which held only40 percent odds of favorable weather.

"I feel more optimistic about Wednesday thanTuesday," Winters said over the weekend.

Ares I-X is the first trial version ofNASA's Ares I booster, a next-generation rocket intended to replace the spaceshuttle as a vehicle to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit and, ultimately, onmissions to the moon. The test rocket includes a real solid-rocket first stage,with a dummy second stage and mock Orion crew module atop it.

If Ares I-X does not launch this week, NASA may have tostand down until sometime in November due to otherlaunch traffic, including a shuttle mission slated to lift off from anearby launch pad Nov. 16. The 327-foot (100-meter) rocket, currently theworld's tallest booster capable of launching, may have another chance to flyThursday, mission managers have said.

Next-generation spacecraft

The Ares I-X flight is expected to last a little over twominutes. The rocket is slated to loft eastward, reaching a maximum altitude ofabout 150,000 feet, or 28 miles (46 km), before arcing back down into theAtlantic Ocean.

The mission's purpose is to collect data on the rocket'sdesign and performance. Cameras on the ground and aboard an airplane willgather visual evidence of the rocket's flight, while over 700 sensors onboardwill record comprehensive measurements.

As an untested rocket, the mission does come with a higherdegree of risk than the more routine space shuttle missions, managers said.

"There are no guarantees," Ares I-X missionmanager Bob Ess said on Monday. "We think we're ready to go from a vehiclepoint of view. The whole point of tomorrow is to learn from it."

In fact, the novel aspect of the experimental flight isexciting to the rocket scientists.

"This developmental flight test stuff is a lot offun," Mango said.

Future plans

Regardless of the outcome of Ares I-X, the ultimate fate ofAres I remains uncertain. Plans for the rocket, along with the Constellationprogram under which it falls, are under review by the Obama administration. Apresidential panel submitteda report last week summarizing NASA's plans and offering a set of optionsfor the future.

The report suggested that NASA abandon Ares I and allowcommercial companies to step in and provide a vehicle capable of transportinghumans to low-Earth orbit. That way, NASA could focus on building spacecraft totake people back to the moon and beyond.

The space agency has been working to ready the Ares I rocketand Orion crew capsules for operation in 2015 with the goal of returning to themoon by 2020. But the recent review found that the new rocket and spacecraftwill likely not be ready until 2017.

Constellation program manager Jeff Hanley said the upcomingflight test would be useful, even if Ares I is never to be built.

"It's certainly incredibly important to the AresI," Hanley said. "It is just as important to any future human launchsystem that you might want to build. And of course it's important in terms ofour overall plan for the Constellation program."

SPACE.com will provide full coverage of NASA's Ares I-Xtest flight with Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz in Cape Canaveral, Fla., andManaging Editor Tariq Malik in New York. Clickhere for live launch coverage and mission coverage. 

 

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