NASA launches its first new rocket in three decades

Posted on October 28, 2009

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STS-1, the first space shuttle mission, launched on April 12, 1981. At that point, the shuttle was already several years old, and the original designs stretch back to the early 1970’s. The shuttle then was designed using the same basic technology that was used to go to the Moon, and while it’s been updated several times since, it wasn’t until 2007 that the shuttle’s computer software was updated to the point that the computers wouldn’t require a reboot if the shuttle was in orbit over the New Year.

So the first test launch of NASA’s first new rocket in three decades is a big deal. And today, the Ares 1-X rocket, carrying a dummy second stage and packed with 700 sensors to gather flight data, launched successfully from Kennedy.

Watching this brought me back to being a child and watching the shuttle launch for the first time. I won’t say it was STS-1, because I don’t remember. But it was an early launch, before Challenger.

Earlier this week, I heard a story on NPR about the launch of the Ares 1-X. In it, the deputy mission manager for the launch, Jon Cowart, says “This is really rocket science. And it’s not something you do on a lark. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.” And the story makes the following point:

[N]o matter what happens, the test flight data will be extremely useful for rocket science and designers of future space vehicles. “To borrow a quote from one of my favorite rocket designers, Wernher von Braun,” Cowart says, ” ‘One good test is worth a thousand expert opinions.’ “

In other words, even if the rocket had blown up on the launch pad, as so many others did in the early days of manned spaceflight, it would still provide the designers valuable data. Data that would ensure that the next rocket would succeed, or at least not fail for the same reason.

Or, to put it yet another way, NASA can make putting the space shuttle, and perhaps soon the Ares rockets, into space appear routine and perfectly safe because of all the rockets they blew up decades ago. And all the explosions in the video below were successes because scientists and engineers learned from them.

Whether the Obama Administration will continue the development of the Ares 1 rocket is an open question. But today, the Ares 1-X was a success. And it didn’t even blow up.

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