Constellation Program Status and Ares 1-X Flight Test Results

Constellation Program Status and Ares 1-X Flight Test Results
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Flight Test Results

On Oct. 28, 2009, at 11:30 AM EDT, the first flight test of the Ares launch vehicle—the 1-X—lifted off from Pad 39B of the Merritt Island launch facility at Kennedy Space Center. The 327-feet tall vehicle comprised a four segment solid booster stage, an upgrade of the Shuttle’s SRBs, and a simulated upper stage and Orion crew module.

The test vehicle began pitchover shortly after clearing the tower, and flew an almost nominal trajectory throughout its two minute flight. It reached a velocity of Mach 4.76 at that time, slightly faster than planned. The simulated upper stages separated from the booster at approximately 130,000 feet and the booster coasted up to 150,000 feet. At that point it began to fall back to earth. Shortly thereafter a series of braking rockets fired to slow the vehicle’s rate of descent, and at T+270 seconds the recovery parachutes deployed.

The booster splashed down some 150 miles downrange and was successfully recovered. However, it appears that one parachute failed on descent, and the booster hit the water harder than planned, as divers found a large dent in the bottom segment of the solid rocket.

Aires booster in water

The test vehicle carried 700 sensors that transmitted data back to engineers about its performance. That data is still being evaluated but the NASA panel tasked with evaluating the flight recommended, on Oct. 30, that a second test, the Ares 1-Y, be cancelled.

Why Ares?

As the Ares 1-X test vehicle sat on the pad, it looked like a gangly erector set construction that some observers doubted would hold together after launch. The upgraded SRB booster was much slimmer than the much larger diameter upper stages which are 5.5 meters in diameter.

Obviously the gangly contraption did hold together and flew superbly.

Ares was to be a part of the Constellation program that NASA proposed to eventually replace the Shuttle after it is retired, ostensibly in 2010. Unfortunately, the Administration cancelled the program in February, after 9 billion dollars had been spent on it. Cancellation would eventually put 40,000 people out of work.

Constellation comprised two vehicles—Ares 1 which would carry the manned Orion crew module into low earth orbit (LEO) and Ares V, a heavy lift vehicle that could have carried massive cargo into LEO or take man back to the moon, or even Mars or the asteroids.

Both vehicles were based on the proven technology of the Shuttle, the Air Force’s DELTA IV vehicle and the SATURN V. The Ares 1 as noted used an upgraded Shuttle SRB as a booster. The upper stage was a modernized version of the SATURN V’s S-IVB stage, and used a modernized J-2 engine used on that stage.

Ares 1

The Ares V would have had two five segment SRB boosters, like the Shuttles, attached to a modified Shuttle external tank with six upgraded DELTA IV RS68B engines. An Earth Departure Stage, with one J2 engine, would be used for lunar and planetary missions.

Ares v

Total thrust at liftoff was not estimated, but the vehicle was planned to be able to carry over 400,000 pounds into LEO.

The Dream Was ONLY a Dream

These were the plans NASA spent four years and $9 billion developing. But the current administration threw a fly in the ointment. In May of last year. President Obama appointed a panel to review NASA’s plans for continued.U.S. manned presence in space. Bear in mind, even with the Constellation project, America would go five years without a manned presence once the shuttle retired. Current plans call for us to hitch a ride on Russian rockets to get to the ISS!

The President’s panel, the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, Popularly known as the Augustine Panel, issued its report in September. It was not enthralled with the Constellation program. While the report is couched in typical govermentese, the Committee basically proposed that NASA turn the development and building of the next generation of launch vehicles and spacecraft over to the commercial sector—or develop an international consortium similar to the way the ISS was constructed to develop and build the new ways into space.

That sounds fine on the face of it, but many pointed out flaws in the thinking. Dr. Michael Griffin, former NASA Administrator and now Professor at the University of Alabama Huntsville, asks simply “What commercial sector?”

He notes the only commercial space vehicle capable of launching the Orion is the European Space Agency’s Ariane, and he points out even that agency admits it would take years to man rate the vehicle.

And he brought up a deeper question. Is the U.S. willing to give up independent access to space? Ironically, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford (D), Chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, had no use for the report at all.

“I don’t see the logic of scrapping what the nation has spent years and billions of dollars to develop in favor of starting down a new path developed in haste and which hasn’t been subjected to any of the detailed technical and cost reviews that went into the formulation of the existing Constellation program.

As far as I can tell, the Constellation program’s only sin is to have tried to implement a very challenging program with an inadequate budget.”

In fact, the report does agree to a reasonably aggressive manned planetary program, going back to the moon first, then on to Mars. And it acknowledges that the program has suffered from inadequate funding, estimating that an additional $3 billion a year would be needed to bring the program up to speed.

But Obama decided to ignore that part of the report, and effectively end America’s manned presence in space.

Still, the private sector has come through with a means for American astronauts to return to space with the development, and successful test of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 LV and Dragon spacecraft.

Sources and Credits

All images: NASA

Sources: REPORT - FINAL.pdf