Liftoff: historic moment or false step?

At 11:30 this morning, NASA scientists and the world witnessed the birth of the America’s next-generation human space exploration program with the successful launch of the Ares 1-X test rocket. Sleek, clean-lined, and delightfully futuristic, the Ares 1-X tapers to a needle-like apex 327 feet above its base. By comparison, the space shuttle we’ve seen launch from pads at the Kennedy Space Center since 1981 looks like a dowdy maiden aunt.

Ares 1-X is shaped something like a hypodermic needle; after the rocket itself had burned out its fuel, about 25 miles above the ground, the first stage (the plunger of the needle) fell away, while the upper stage continued another three miles into the air. Tucked just beneath the upper stage’s needle nose was a mock-up crew module, which the upper stage carried up another three miles before they fell back toward earth.

The launch simulated the first two minutes of a flight of Ares 1, the rocket NASA has designed to replace the shuttle in shipping crews to the International Space Station. Instead of holding a dummy crew module, the nose of Ares-1 would enclose the Orion crew vehicle, a versatile ship that could dock at the ISS and rendezvous with the planned lunar lander Altair before embarking on a moon mission.

By all accounts the launch, which had been stymied by bad weather, was a success. The rocket’s hundreds of sensors took data on the stresses of take-off, providing engineers with invaluable information for improving their current design for Ares 1. Video streamed on NASA TV showed the team at Kennedy, dressed in the awkwardly formal engineer-in-the-public-eye uniform of white dress shirt and patterned tie, jovially shaking hands; according to the NASA tradition for successful launches, the launch director had his tie ceremonially clipped by a pair of scissors.

Today’s launch might turn out to be a historic moment that people recall decades from now when the first human sets foot on Mars. Or it might turn out to be a $445 million foray down a blind alley. Just last week, a review panel plainly refuted the idea that NASA had the budget to move forward with Constellation, its program to put humans back on the surface of the moon and sending them on to Mars.

The tip of Ares 1-X towers 30 stories above the launch pad. (Photo by NASA.)

According to NASA, the return to the moon with Constellation wouldn’t be to leave a historic footprint, but explore the moon, study its geology and resources, and eventually build an outpost, a more far-flung version of the ISS. The Ares 5, the Ares 1 hefty older brother, is being designed to carry building blocks of such an outpost into the heavens. This lunar mission, NASA hopes, would provide the agency with the know-how for an even more ambitious mission—putting humans on Mars.

Even with hopeful spin NASA puts on the idea in this educational video, a mission to Mars sounds incredibly daunting. It would take six months to get to Mars, about the average length of a stay at the ISS. Once they made it there, a crew would have to spend 500 days on the red planet, waiting for the right alignment with Earth before taking off on another six-month return voyage. This is more than leaps and bounds beyond what NASA is currently capable of doing. I can’t even imagine how a crew could be trained to perfectly orchestrate a trip of that length.

The panelists who reviewed Constellation had similar feelings. But their reservations were squarely in the financial zone. With infinite resources and time, of course, NASA could achieve the goals of Constellation. But the panel questioned whether they should, when private companies might build a next-generation ferry to the ISS more cheaply and efficiently. Far simpler than landing on the moon and Mars, they said, would be angling for Lagrange points or Martian moons, and studying the moon and Mars via fly-by.

NASA has scheduled Ares I to fly with a crew for the first time in 2015, but the panel expects insufficient funding to delay it another two years. They estimate that NASA is about $59 billion too poor to carry out Constellation. Unless Congress and President Obama agree to fund the difference, this spectacular launch might become a symbol of a dream deferred.

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