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.)