Ares 1 Booster Test Successful, But Program’s Future is Cloudy

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WASHINGTON — Fresh on the heels of a report questioning the viability of NASA’s human spaceflight plans, AlliantTechsystems (ATK) test fired a solid-rocket booster that would serve as the main stage of an astronaut-launching Ares 1 rocket whose future is now in doubt.

ATK said Sept. 10 that the five-segment booster under development since 2005 performed as designed, producing 3.6 million pounds of thrust and burning for over two minutes. The test took place at the company’s solid-rocket manufacturing facility in Promontory, Utah.

Mike Kahn, ATK Space Systems executive vice president, said data obtained from the test would aid the first stage design of Ares 1, which he called “the safest launch vehicle ever developed.”

An independent panel chartered by the White House in May to review NASA’s human spaceflight program released a summary report Sept. 8 that said the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher are running about two years behind their currently planned 2015 debut. NASA and its contractors still could field Orion and Ares 1 sometime in 2017, the report says, but only if the White House agrees to boost NASA’s annual budget by some $3 billion by 2014 and de-orbits the international space station in 2016. Under this scenario, Orion and Ares would have no place to go until Moon missions commenced in the mid-2020s.

Only one other option in the report entails finishing Ares 1, a so-called budget-constrained scenario that keeps NASA funded at around $18.6 billion a year, de-orbits the space station in 2016, finishes Ares 1 and Orion about a year later, and throttles back on the development of Ares 5, a heavy-lift rocket critical to NASA’s plans for putting astronauts on the Moon. Under this scenario, the report says, Ares 5 “is not available until the late 2020s, and worse, there are insufficient funds to develop the lunar lander and lunar surface systems until well into the 2030s, if ever.”

The other three broad scenarios laid out in the report call for giving NASA more money and keeping the space station in service through 2020. These would entail canceling Ares 1 and relying on commercial rockets and spacecraft for delivering astronauts and supplies to the space station.