This isn't your daddy's space ship -- but it is something your grandfather might recognize. The Ares 1-X rocket sitting on the launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center is ready to go, scheduled for launch Tuesday morning if the weather holds.
It won't go far on this trip, but NASA hopes it will eventually take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit and -- someday -- on to Mars.
This launch follows a less-than-wholehearted endorsement by the Augustine Commission, the presidential panel that spent this past year reviewing the future of the U.S. space program.
The Ares is supposed to replace the 30-year-old space shuttle, which is scheduled to quit flying by the end of 2011 after six more missions. Ares, the commission concluded, will cost too much and take too long to really be a practical replacement. The plan was to have it ready to fly by 2015, but 2017 is more realistic. NASA's only option, meanwhile, to get astronauts to the space station is to buy seats on the Russian Soyuz.
That said, Norm Augustine, chairman of the Human Spaceflight Commission, did recommend the $445 million Ares 1-X test flight go as scheduled to generate valuable test data.
"We think there are important things to be learned that will help the program," he said last week.
Apollo's Younger Cousin
This slender rocket, built with some used and some new space shuttle parts, has a design that harkens back to the Apollo program -- a capsule on top of a rocket powered by solid rocket fuel. This new-generation program is called Constellation, and Jeff Hanley is the man in charge.
"Physics hasn't changed much (since Apollo); it still takes big rockets to do these big missions," said Hanley. "The Ares V that we are planning to build has much in common with the Ares 1, the crew launch vehicle".
Ares gets its big two-minute test this week. This is actually a limited experiment: the rocket has a dummy upper stage, and does not carry the Orion space capsule meant eventually to carry astronauts. The Ares is to head due east after launch, rising 150,000 feet over the Atlantic and reaching a speed of four times the speed of sound.
Then the rocket will plunge into the ocean. It carries 700 sensors to feed data which engineers will use to check the Ares' design.
Son of Shuttle? Or Rocket to Nowhere?
Ares 1-X will be followed by Ares 1-Y, and then an Orion 1 and Orion 2 Flight Director Bryan Lunney will be following the launch from Mission Control in Houston.
"Ares 1-Y is a full-up rocket with the upper stage, and then the Orion 1-- we won't put people on board but it will be a full-up Orion that will go up to space, we will control it from the ground, fly it around for several days," he said. "We will do several tests with that and bring it back home, then we will put folks on top and fly them to the space station."
The Ares looks nothing like a space shuttle -- it is 327 feet tall and pencil-thin, some forty feet shorter than the Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon, but built on the legacy of the Apollo program.
What makes a capsule design work so well? Lunney says it is a tried-and-true formula. "It is much simpler. From an engineering perspective it is a lot purer and simpler to execute. I love the shuttle, I think it is a fantastic vehicle, whereas the Ares 1-X you can splash Orion down anywhere in an ocean."
Twilight of the Shuttles
The shuttles, in contrast, turned out to be complex and delicate. They were mounted on the side of their booster rockets and fuel tank, so debris falling from them often hit the orbiter -- with fatal results in the Columbia accident in 2003.
When Ares launches the space shuttle Atlantis will be sitting on launch pad 39A, a mile away, waiting for its turn in November. It is part of a fleet that started flying 30 years ago, and while it may be an old design, it is still a remarkable vehicle, says astronaut John Phillips.
"It is still the only reusable spacecraft. No one else has one," he said. "It will fly for 30 years and do things no other spacecraft can do, and no other spacecraft in the foreseeable future can do -- carry these big things up, and grab it with a robot arm, and dock to the space station, and bolt something on the side, and send spacewalkers out, and launch satellites, and do scientific laboratory experiments, all of these things together. It is a remarkable vehicle. Designed by guys in the 1970s with slide rules and pocket protectors, it is pretty remarkable."