A new rocket more than 100 feet taller than the space shuttle stands on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, ready to blast off this week. It's called Ares I-X, and it could become a key part of the U.S. space program's future. Or, it could be scrapped. Even before its first launch, a NASA advisory last week questioned its worth. The rocket was built because space shuttles are scheduled to stop flying after 2010, or possibly 2011, once astronauts finish building the International Space Station. Next, NASA wants to return humans to the moon, and possibly send them on to Mars. For this, the space agency is designing a capsule-type spacecraft called Orion. It would launch on the new Ares rocket. However, the advisory panel said last week that NASA would need billions more money each year for this ambitious plan to explore space. Without it, continuing the development of this Ares rocket, and another similar one, might not make sense, the panel said. But the Ares I-X prototype is still scheduled for liftoff. If all goes well, the rocket will launch between 8 a.m. and noon Tuesday. As it soars 28 miles high, about 700 sensors will transmit data back to the ground. NASA will use this information if it continues to develop the rocket.
The lower stage of Ares I-X is a four-segment solid rocket booster, similar to the two white pencil-shaped rockets used to help lift space shuttles into orbit.
The upper stage on this prototype will not function. But in the actual version, the upper stage would contain supercold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for fuel, also like the space shuttle.
• The upper stage engine of the completed rocket is partly modeled on engines in the Saturn V rockets that sent astronauts to the moon.
• The capsule on this test rocket is another mock-up. In the actual version, the capsule containing the astronauts would parachute back to Earth and land on U.S. soil.
Take a look: From the Tampa Bay area, look east and a bit to the north at launch time, and you may be able to see the rocket launching, depending on cloudiness. Check tampabay.com for updates.