A prototype NASA rocket for a planned crew launcher lifted off into the Florida sky Wednesday morning, providing an unmanned flight demonstration of the new technology. The 100-meter-tall Ares 1-X, powered by a solid rocket booster, flew from Kennedy Space Center to an altitude of 45 kilometers before splashing down six minutes later in the Atlantic Ocean as planned.
The exercise tested components for Ares 1, a rocket that should begin ferrying astronauts to orbit in the next decade—assuming, of course, that NASA continues to pursue Ares 1 rather than shifting crew-launch duties to private space companies. The latter option is a distinct possibility given the recent report of a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine. The Augustine commission determined that under NASA's budgetary constraints, Ares 1 can only be completed at the expense of other high-profile projects, such as the International Space Station.
An earlier launch opportunity Tuesday was foiled by inclement weather, and conditions were again less than ideal Wednesday, but mission managers found a suitable opportunity at 11:30 A.M. (Eastern Daylight Time), toward the end of the four-hour launch window for Ares 1-X.
Among the concerns in both launch attempts was triboelectrification—static electricity generated by friction, in this case friction between clouds and a rocket piercing through them at supersonic speeds. Such static buildup could disrupt on-board electronic activity. With the Ares 1-X launch being largely focused on data collection and testing, even a temporary loss of instrumentation or communications could be costly.
Mission managers watching Wednesday's test launch: NASA/Bill Ingalls