CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA’s newest rocket successfully completed a brief test flight Wednesday, the first step in a back-to-the-moon program that could yet be shelved by the White House.
The 327-foot Ares I-X rocket resembled a giant white pencil as it shot into the sky, delayed a day by poor weather.
Nearly twice the height of the spaceship it’s supposed to replace – the shuttle – the skinny experimental rocket carried no passengers or payload, only throwaway ballast and hundreds of sensors. The flight cost $445 million.
NASA said the flight was a tremendous success, based on early indications.
“Oh, man. Well, how impressive is that,” said Jeff Hanley, manager of NASA’s space frontier program, known as Constellation. “You’ve accomplished a great step forward for exploration,” he told launch controllers.
It was the first time in nearly 30 years that a new rocket took off from Kennedy Space Center. Columbia made the maiden voyage for the shuttle fleet back in 1981.
Wednesday’s launch, three years in the making, represented the first step in NASA’s effort to return astronauts to the moon. The White House, though, is re-evaluating the human spaceflight program and may dump the Ares in favor of another type of rocket and possibly another destination.
The ballistic flight did not come close to reaching space and, as expected, lasted a mere two minutes. That’s how long it took for the first-stage solid-fuel booster to burn out and separate from the mock upper stage 25 miles up. But it will take months to analyze all the data from the approximately 725 pressure, strain and acceleration sensors.
Parachutes popped open and dropped the booster into the Atlantic, where recovery ships waited.