Delay followed delay followed delay yesterday, but this morning the NASA's new Ares I-X finally lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida with a bang. With massive smoke plume trailing, the rocket soared into the atmosphere at supersonic speeds and completed initial phase separation before successfully face-planting into the Pacific Ocean two minutes later.
One NASA official on the live launch feed best summed it up in his post-launch comments to the ground crew: "That was friggin' fantastic. I've got tears in my eyes. To all the naysayers, that was just one of the most beautiful rocket launches that I've ever seen."
The crew deserved the kudos after nearly two tenuous days of waiting for the perfect conditions in which to launch, with the T-zero time sometimes being pushed back in increments as little as seven minutes.
The Ares I-X rocket is the first spacecraft to launch from the Kennedy Space Center besides the space shuttle since the final Apollo missions were scrapped more than three decades ago, and carries with it NASA’s ambitions to return manned missions to the moon by 2020 via the new Constellation program. It will also replace the aging shuttle fleet, which will be decommissioned next year, as NASA’s means to launch astronauts into Earth orbit.
Tuesday's launch attempt was complicated by both weather and a container ship that wandered into Ares' launch danger area over the Pacific. Though today's weather on the ground in Florida was postcard perfect, cirrus clouds in the upper atmosphere continually caused NASA to push back the launch from an original liftoff time of 8:30 to an eventual successful liftoff at 11:30, EST.
Today’s two-minute test flight is important from both engineering and political standpoints. The 700 sensors placed along Ares will provide engineers with data that will help them hone its design. It will also (hopefully) provide something of a proof of concept as the Obama administration considers a report that raises concerns about the viability and need for the entire Constellation program.
At 327 feet, the Ares I-X comes in just a bit smaller than its largest Apollo predecessor, the Saturn V rocket that launched the first men to the moon in 1969 (as well as various missions before and thereafter). If NASA can maintain its schedule – and more importantly, its funding – Ares series rockets should launch into regular service by 2015.