The Ares I-X: Our Next Starship?

Ares I-X Test Flight; Oct. 28, 2009
Ares I-X Test Flight; Oct. 28, 2009

In the wake of the epic Cosmos podcast arc, it seems fitting that the discussion about the future of space flight has come into the forefront of the news. With the Space Shuttle program due to be retired in 2010, NASA has taken a page out of the Apollo mission playbook in laying out the foundations for our next generation of spacecraft, seeking to take us beyond the boundaries of Earth’s orbit, back to the moon, and farther.

Enter the Constellation program. Launched in 2005, NASA began to brainstorm how to once again send astronauts to the moon. Since the Space Shuttle obviously did not have the capacity to travel such a distance, a new spacecraft would need to be designed from the ground up. With the success of the previous Apollo missions to the moon (save 13) and the use of engineers from Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, NASA decided to build upon the original Apollo spacecraft design used over thirty years ago.

The Ares I rocket is so far the tallest rocket built on the planet Earth; its design is derived from the solid rocket boosters used on the Space Shuttle today. Its purpose is to carry a four-to-six member crew of astronauts into orbit within the new Orion crew exploration vehicle, itself based off the original Apollo command module design. There is also additional consideration that it could be used to transport personnel and a light amount of supplies to the International Space Station in the future. One of the more notable benefits of this new rocket design is that in contrast to the Saturn V, the components of the Ares I will be reusable, allowing for more launches with less demand for construction resources.  Whereas the Saturn’s various stages were jettisoned and burned up in the planet’s atmosphere, the Ares I’s booster will be jettisoned early enough so as not to experience atmospheric disintegration, making it retrievable from an oceanic splashdown.

This past Wednesday, the Ares I prototype was launched for its first unmanned flight test. While the entire event only lasted about six minutes, it provided NASA the opportunity to see if their new design could stand up to the requirements of potential missions and if any improvements need to be made.  The analysis of the telemetry and sensor data will take weeks, if not months, but this is mankind’s next small step into wading out farther into the cosmic ocean.

(Thanks to nasa1fan/MSFC for this great CC-licensed photo.)

5 Responses to "The Ares I-X: Our Next Starship?"
  1. fastcart says:

    Nice post. Thanks.

  2. Shooter says:

    While I personally would like to see the shuttle fleet continue operations, I sympathize with NASA on their budget constraints and recognize the shuttles are operating beyond their original design life. So, it is probably time for something new.

    I wish their was a evolutionary jump in the propulsion technology of the Ares. Unforunately, the first stage main engines, the RS-68’s, only produce 420 seconds of specific impulse or Isp versus the shuttle main engines , the RS-24’s, produce 458 seconds of Isp. (Isp is pronounced “Eye-ess-pee”)

    What does this mean? In simplist terms you can think of Isp as the rocket equivalent of “miles-per-gallon” for a car. Isp is the effeciency of the rocket engine to produce thrust given a certain amount of fuel. So the higher the Isp, the more efficient the rocket’s performance is.

    If we are going to move forward and make launching a pound to orbit an order of 10 or more cheeper, one of the best ways to accomplish that is make make the rockets more efficient on how they use their fuel mass to produce thrust.

    With that said, I do recognize that the RS-68 engines are rated at 663,000 pounds of thrust versus only 400,000 pounds of thrust for the shuttle’s RS-24 engines. But that is just like putting a big V-8 in your car versus a 4-banger. You get better accelerating and a higher top speed, but the total amount of gas you use is greater. In a rocket, the less “gas” you use, the better since it means taking a smaller total mass into orbit.

    Maybe I am expecting too much, but I had hoped that the next generation of rockets to carry humans into space would be at least a step forward into making launching into orbit cheeper, not a step backwards.

  3. Bob says:

    Whatever happened to the Phoenix re-usable low orbit single stage? SCRAM jet development? Why are they going back to staged rockets?

  4. Bob says:

    In otherwords: what happened to the plan to use the international space station as a staging platform for a moon launch using low orbit, re-usable vehicles to haul everything needed up?

  5. david says:

    Its a pity we couldnt have a facory in space no matter how small. Use of a VNM (von Neumann machine)might help, but we do need to get into making Tech or even anything in space the units built could be used to make the next space station or a platform to launch to the moon or mars, we need to get beyond the idea of launching everything from earth, if we could just launch people to the platform then use it as a stepping stone

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