Where is NASA Going? Rumors Fly

The rumors are flying fast and furious as to details of NASA’s budget and future path that will be officially announced on February 1, 2010. The Orlando Sentinel says the Constellation program is dead: Obama and Congress are going to pull the plug on the Ares rocket and nix returning to the Moon. The Houston Chronicle says there is no way NASA will get a budget boost, especially not the $3 billion suggested by the Augustine Commission. New Scientists reports that Mars’ moon Phobos will be the next destination of human explorers, as part of the undefined “flexible path” — again suggested by the Augustine panel. Most interesting among the mix is a blog post by NASA’s Wayne Hale, who suggests NASA should get out of the human spaceflight business – and allow commercial space companies to handle hauling astronauts to space.

Some speculate this could be the end of America’s space agency as we know it — we might as well take the “S” out of NASA.

The Augustine Commission report last year said “The human spaceflight program that the United States is currently pursuing is on an unsustainable trajectory.”

But is ending Constellation, a program we’ve already spent billions on going to save money or our space program in the long run?

Or does NASA need a whole new direction and a whole new beginning.

Or is it an ending?

Enough speculation. The official word will come on Monday.

Discuss below, or chime in at this thread on NASAWatch, or this one at Space Politics.

Engineers Find Fixes For Potential Thrust Oscillation Problem on Ares

Will the Ares rocket stay or will it go? For now, no one knows, but NASA engineers have developed multiple options for “de-tuning” the Ares I rocket to prevent any problematic thrust oscillations that could potentially expose astronauts to dangerous levels of vibrations as the rocket climbs to orbit with the Orion crew vehicle atop. Even though the Ares I-X test flight showed no problematic thrust oscillation vibrations took place during the flight, engineers believe they have found a solution to preclude it from actually ever happening with any future Ares rocket. Read the details below; and enjoy this video round-up of everything that happened with the Constellation program in 2009.
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Time Magazine Names NASA’s Ares-I As “Best Invention of 2009”

Ares I-X. Credit: NASA/Scott Andrews


Whoa. As many people noted on Twitter: Didn’t see this one coming. Time Magazine named NASA’s Ares rocket as the 2009 Invention of the Year. Ares beat out the what has been billed as the world’s best paper airplane, the bladeless fan, rubber made from dandelions, and, my favorite, teleportation. I don’t know who Time had for their judges, but obviously Buzz Aldrin wasn’t among them. Check out his Huffington Post article where he says although the Ares I-X launched looked spectacular, Ares 1 needs to be scrapped.

What’s Next for the Ares Rocket?

Launch day. Photo credit: NASA/Sandra Joseph and Kevin O'Connell

After Wednesday’s picture perfect launch of the Ares I-X test rocket — which revealed no real showstoppers or issues as of yet for the vehicle — the obvious next question is: now what? Much of what comes next for the Ares program, and Constellation in general, hinges on any decisions the Obama administration and Congress make in regards to NASA’s budget and the options put forth by the Augustine Commission. But if the Ares program is given the green light, here’s an overview of the next steps, future test flights and milestones. First on the list? We won’t hear the word “triboelectrification” ever again.

No more trouble with triboelectrification.

At Wednesday’s press briefing following the launch, program managers said they didn’t realize what a big issue the triboelectrification rule would be. Flying through high-level clouds can generate “P-static” (P for precipitation), which can create a corona of static around the rocket that interferes with radio signals sent by or to the rocket. This would create problems when the rocket tries to transmit data down to the ground or if the Range Safety Officer at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station needed to send a signal to terminate (blow up) the rocket in the event of a problem.

“We can coat the vehicle with something to dissipate the charge, or you certify the vehicle to show it is not sensitive to that effect,” said Bob Ess, Ares I-X mission manager. “We’ve done analysis that our vehicle isn’t sensitive, but we didn’t go and get it certified with the Range. This was a bigger implication to us than we expected.”

Constellation program manager Jeff Hanley said had there been a lengthy delay of the test flight, for whatever reason, they likely would have had the time and opportunity to do the certification. But from now on, Hanley said, all rockets will be certified before launch to avoid the “trouble with triboelectrification.”

In-flight anomaly.

Image from NASA TV showing the Ares I-X stage separtion.
Image from NASA TV showing the Ares I-X stage separtion.

The only initial anomaly during the test flight was some unusual dynamics on the dummy second stage after separation. It went into a flat tumble, and appeared as if it might hit the first stage as it turned. The reason for the tumble wasn’t initially known, and will be of interest to the team as they analyze data from over 700 sensors. “We know all the motors fired, but it might be the aerodynamics,” said Ess, “perhaps a higher aerodynamic pressure than what we expected. It was interesting, and interesting is good. It wasn’t dramatically different from what we expected, though”.

As far as the future, Hanley said the flight test program is constantly under review as far as what budget and schedule allows but here’s the current plan:

Spring 2010: Launch Abort System Test.

Launch abort system. Credit: NASA
Launch abort system. Credit: NASA

The Ares’ Orion crew capsule includes a launch abort system, which is scheduled to undergo the first of three tests early next year. The abort system involves three separate motors to move the capsule away from the rocket and/or launchpad. It will have directional control to separate and jettison the entire launch abort system so the capsule can parachute back to Earth.

The test will take place at the White Sands Missile with a “boiler plate capsule,” a mock-up the Orion capsule outfitted with several instruments to measure how the abort motors work. “This is a key part of any human launch system as far as safety is concerned,” Hanley said.

Summer 2010: First Stage Motor Testing

ATK has just started casting the second Ares I first stage motor that will be test fired summer 2010. “We have more first stage recovery parachute testing as well, schedule for April,” Trina Patterson from ATK told Universe Today. She is the Senior Manager Media Relations for ATK Space Systems.

2010: Mobile launcher completed.

The new Ares mobile launcher, as it looked under contruction in Sept. 2009. Credit: NASA
The new Ares mobile launcher, as it looked under contruction in Sept. 2009. Credit: NASA

The new mobile launcher, currently under construction, will be the base for the Ares rocket to launch the Orion crew exploration vehicle and the cargo vehicle. “Two tiers are up, and the third tier is ready to go up later this week,” Hanley said. The base will be lighter than space shuttle mobile launcher platforms so the crawler-transporter can pick up the added load of the 345-foot tower and taller rocket. When the structural portion of the new launcher is complete, umbilical lines, access arms, communications equipment and command/control equipment will be installed.

Late 2010: Design review for the Orion capsule.

“At the end of next year, there is a critical design review for the Orion capsule,” said Hanley. “Progress is underway to build components. The first copy of Orion is being welded together at the Michoud Assembly Facility (in New Orleans). We will go through bunch of testing through the next couple of years, getting everything designed. It had a successful PDR (preliminary design review) in August and has the CDR (critical design review) next year. The Orion factory is actually here KSC, it is coming together, and as soon as all the parts come, they can put it together.”

Hanley said the program is paced by the current budget on when they can order parts for both Orion and Ares. “We’re under a continuing resolution, and that puts pressure on a program that want to be ramping up to its peak at this time,” he said. “More money sooner is would be good – that gets the parts purchased and into the supply chain. It takes about 3 years to actually get the parts you need. To build parts, you have to get the design done and know what you want to buy and then get your parts to assemble the rocket.”

A J-2 engine undergoes static firing. Image Credit: NASA
A J-2 engine undergoes static firing. Image Credit: NASA

Early 2011: J2X engine initial test.

The Ares I second, or upper, stage is propelled by a J-2X main engine fueled with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

The J-2X is an evolved variation of two historic predecessors: the powerful J-2 engine that propelled the Apollo-era Saturn IB and Saturn V rockets, and the J-2S, a simplified version of the J-2 developed and tested in the early 1970s but never flown.

March 2014: Arex 1Y test flight.

Artist concept of Ares I. Image Credit: NASA
Artist concept of Ares I. Image Credit: NASA

This will be a suborbital flight of the five-segment first stage reusable solid-rocket first with a flight-production upper stage, but containing a dummy J-2X engine. It will also conduct a high altitude test of the launch abort system. Hanley said they have studied putting an actual J-2X engine on that flight to prove that it will start at that altitude, but that is still under review.

“We’d all like to fly sooner; I would have liked to see Orion in completed in 2012 or 13, but the funding didn’t materialize for that, so we adjusted,” Hanley said. “That’s what we have to to do budget cycle to budget cycle. And that’s what we have to continue to do. But we’re making progress on the system, and the flight test schedule, we look for the opportunity to do more flight testing, but that is predicated on the budget.”

NASA Tests New Parachutes for Ares Spacecraft


This has been an exciting week for NASA’s Constellation program — the missions that will bring humans back to the Moon. Earlier in the week, NASA announced plans for testing abort systems and inflatable Moon habitats.

But on Thursday, November 15 actual tests were conducted for some of the genuine hardware that will be used for the Ares launch vehicles.

Near Yuma, Arizona, engineers tested the parachutes that will bring boosters from the first stage of the massive Ares rockets back to Earth.

Certainly, parachutes and rocket booster recovery is nothing new for NASA. But this new parachute is a whopper. Spanning 150 feet across and weighing 2,000 pounds makes this the largest chute of its kind ever tested for parachutes that will carry some of the heaviest payloads ever delivered.

And the new parachute worked perfectly — if not patriotically — with its red, white and blue striped canopy. Made of Kevlar, which is stronger and lighter than the nylon chutes used for the space shuttle’s solid rocket booster recovery, these bigger and stronger parachutes can still fit into the same size canister used for the shuttle boosters but yet be lighter.

Although the Ares boosters will actually come down in the Atlantic Ocean, the tests were conducted in the desert near the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground. Additionally, the tests used only a 42,000 pound weighted tub as opposed to the 200,000 pound weight of the actual boosters. But the drop tests from 16,000 ft. from a C-17 airplane simulated the peak loads at parachute opening and measured the drag area to validate the design.

The parachute system will allow the Ares I and Ares V boosters to be recovered and then refurbished and reused for future flights. Ares I will launch the Orion vehicle, which will carry humans to the moon, while the larger Ares V will be used for the Cargo Launch Vehicle.

The boosters are scheduled to be flight tested in 2009.

Keep those tests coming!

Original News Source: NASA Press Release