WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver are planning to attend the unmanned suborbital test flight of the Ares 1-X rocket, targeted for Oct. 27 at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., according to NASA officials.
The $445 million test is a major early milestone for NASA’s Constellation program, a five-year old effort to build new rockets and spacecraft capable of returning humans to the Moon by 2020.
But the Ares 1-X test shot comes as Bolden and Garver mull the findings of a blue-ribbon panel tasked with determining a range of options for NASA’s manned spaceflight future. The panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, included completion of the Ares 1 rocket in two of the five broad options detailed in its report. But the other options would scrap Ares 1 and make substantial changes to other aspects of the Constellation program, including dropping the Moon in favor of other destinations.
“Ares 1 is living on a very thin thread,” said John Logsdon, a space policy expert here who predicts that the rocket is not very likely to be approved as part of NASA’s future plans.
Augustine committee members have said regardless of whether NASA decides to cancel Ares 1, it should go ahead with the Ares 1-X flight since it is already paid for and stands to yield useful data.
A flight readiness review conducted Oct. 23 at Kennedy cleared Ares 1-X for an Oct. 27 launch attempt at 8 a.m. EDT.
The Ares 1-X vehicle consists of a four-segment solid-rocket booster, dummy upper stage and mockup of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. The actual Ares 1 would use a more powerful five-segment solid-rocket booster and a liquid-fueled upper stage to loft the Orion into orbit.
NASA expects data collected from the Ares 1-X flight to confirm the 100-meter-tall rocket is safe and stable in flight.
NASA decided Oct. 19 to push back the target launch date for the Space Shuttle Atlantis to Nov. 16 in order to give the Ares 1-X team an additional opportunity to liftoff. As a result, Ares 1-X has a four-hour window each day between Oct. 27 and Oct. 29.
Ares 1-X will lift off from Launch Pad 39B, about 2.5 kilometers from Launch Pad 39A where Atlantis is being prepared for its launch.
NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager John Shannon said Atlantis would be safe even if the Ares 1-X launch is a failure. “The impact zone for an explosion [at Ares 1-X’s launch pad]would just barely clip Pad A,” he said. Additionally, much of the shuttle is protected by the rotating service structure that guards against weather.
Tariq Malik and Clara Moskowitz contributed from New York.