now relied on to get supplies and passengers to the International Space
Station when the space shuttle is not available. It will also eventual
replace the space shuttle program for missions to the ISS and beyond.
NASA launched its Ares I-X rocket Wednesday, after multiple delays over two days because of bad weather.
The rocket took off at 11:30 a.m. ET, 30 minutes before a noon deadline for the launch.
The unmanned Ares I-X is a part of the Constellation Program. The
program has been developing new vehicles to replace space shuttles,
which will be phased out in 2010.
The rocket’s launch is part of NASA’s mission to someday return astronauts to the moon and later travel to Mars.
If the Constellation Program moves forward, the Orion capsule atop the
Ares rocket will not be ready to take astronauts into space until at
least 2015, leaving a gap of at least five years in which the only way
the United States would be able to put humans in orbit would be by
hitching a ride with the Russians.
Part of the test rocket mission is for scientists to try out three
massive main parachutes, measuring 150 feet in diameter and weighing
one ton each — the largest rocket parachutes ever manufactured.
The parachutes are a primary element of the rocket’s deceleration
system, NASA says. After the rocket is successfully launched, the
parachutes are to open at the same time, "providing the drag necessary
to slow the descent of the huge solid rocket motor for a soft landing
in the ocean," the agency says on its Web site.
The two parts of the rocket are to separate at about 130,000 feet. The
top of the rocket, known as the upper stage, includes a mock Orion crew
capsule and a launch abort system. The upper stage will continue its
ascent until gravity forces its return to Earth, after which it will
fall into the Atlantic Ocean.
The launch comes at a critical time, when NASA is waiting for President Obama to decide future funding for the agency.
An independent committee reviewing the future of space flight recently
reported that the U.S. space program appears to be pursuing goals that
exceed current funding.
The committee also recommended to the White House that funding for
NASA’s under-construction international space station should be
extended until 2020.