NASA rolled out its first new space craft in about three decades early Tuesday morning, a towering, spindly rocket called the Ares I-X.
The Ares is slated for an Oct. 27 test flight, the culmination of a $445 million project which has become NASA's top priority, has America's space community buzzing with anticipation.
Upon seeing the Ares roll slowly out of the hangar at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, CBS News Radio correspondent Peter King, who has watched a NASA space craft or two roll out in his day, was awestruck.
"Wow, this thing is tall," said King. In fact, it's more than twice the height of most of NASA's shuttle fleet, measuring a whopping 327 feet from head to tail.
"It's a very tall, slender rocket," said King. "For people used to seeing shuttles come out of this building, this is a surreal sight. It looks almost naked, like you could push it over with a feather."
CBS News space analyst Bill Harwood reported that the Ares project has taken such precedence for NASA that engineers decided Monday morning a Shuttle Atlantis launch slated for mid-November would have to be pushed back to accommodate the Ares test.
Many engineers supporting the Ares project also are needed for shuttle processing, so work to ready Atlantis for launch on the next space station assembly and resupply mission will be stretched out a bit. NASA had been targeting Nov. 12 for launch, but managers agreed Monday on Nov. 16 as a more realistic "no-earlier-than" launch date.
The Ares test flight is a key element in NASA's post-shuttle Constellation program, which calls for replacing the shuttle with a safer, lower-cost rocket to ferry astronauts to low-Earth orbit and development of a large, unmanned heavy lift rocket - the Ares V - that would support eventual expeditions to the moon.
The Obama administration currently is reassessing NASA's manned space program and evaluating five options developed by an independent panel of space experts led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. Only one of the five options includes the Ares I. But in recent hearings, lawmakers expressed reluctance to scrap the Constellation architecture and it's not yet clear what action the Obama administration might take, or when a decision will be made.
Given that backdrop in the policy arena, the planned test flight of the Ares I-X could prove critical to the future of the Constellation program. While a success would not guarantee a continuation of Constellation, a failure could prove fatal.
"You can't avoid that," former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who oversaw the implementation of the Constellation program, said in an interview. "Now, I'll say right on the heels of that remark I think that's regrettable. You don't hinge decision making on one test flight. I mean, that's not good engineering. But I think it's unavoidable that policy makers will look to the success or failure of this flight as a key to future decisions."
The 1.8-million-pound Ares I-X rocket is made up of a four-segment shuttle solid-fuel booster, a dummy fifth segment, a dummy second stage and a mockup of an Orion crew capsule and escape rocket. More than 700 sensors are mounted on the rocket to determine actual performance and the stresses the vehicle experiences, along with three television cameras.
Like any shuttle booster, the Ares I-X will fire for two minutes, boosting the vehicle to an altitude of about 130,000 feet and a velocity of nearly five times the speed of sound. At that point, roughly 43 miles due east of the Kennedy Space Center, the first stage will separate from the dummy upper stage and fall to the Atlantic Ocean in a test of new parachutes designed for the operational Ares I. The dummy upper stage, which will not be recovered, will crash into the ocean some 147 miles from the space center.
The towering rocket, anchored to a modified shuttle launch platform by four massive bolts at the base of the booster's flared aft skirt, stands more than twice as tall as an assembled space shuttle and it was expected to sway slightly as NASA's crawler-transporter carries the "stack" to the launch pad. Officials say the tip of the rocket is expected to move back and forth about a foot depending on the wind and other factors.
While the rocket was engineered to withstand winds of up to 45 knots, the Ares I-X rollout constraint is 20 knots and forecasters are predicting a 90 percent chance of acceptable weather. At the launch pad, a new $13 million shock absorber system utilizing locomotive springs will be hooked up to hold the rocket steady until just before launch.
Liftoff is targeted for 8 a.m. on Oct. 27. Backup opportunities are available Oct. 28 and 29 if needed.
"We're incredibly excited to be on the cusp of flying the system, seeing what Ares I can do," Jeff Hanley, Constellation program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, told Harwood.
The goal of the test flight is to verify computer models and flight characteristics during the critical first two minutes of flight when aerodynamic stresses are most severe.
While the real Ares I rocket features a first-stage booster with five fuel segments, engineers say the four-segment Ares I-X vehicle will closely mimic the flying characteristics of the manned version.