Journalism

NASA launches its first new rocket in three decades

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.

14 replies »

  1. Nice to see NASA making steps forward. Years of underfunding and the occasional bout of ineptitude have taken too much of the shine off of what needs to be a serious priority.

  2. Sam, and I suspect Brian, why do you consider NASA a serious priority? Not that I necessarily disagree, but the price tag that goes along with it is awfully steep.

    • 1: We need more pure research, and space is an important venue for the kinds of research that can potentially produce massive breakthroughs.

      2: Humanity will eventually need to get off this rock. The sooner we begin cultivating that capability the better.

  3. Tom, statements like yours drive me batshit crazy. This is a few years old, but…

    “According to budget documents obtained from the Government Printing Office, the national budget for 2007 totals about $2.784 trillion. At $16.143 billion, spending on NASA accounts for 0.58% of this. Compare this to NASA’s allocation during the mid-1960s when, despite the pressures of the war effort in Vietnam and President Johnson’s Great Society programs, NASA spending made up more than five percent of the federal budget.

    How does NASA’s budget compare with the amount of money the federal government spends on social programs? In the 2007 budget, the funding for social programs (calculated here as the budgets for the Department of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Social Security, Agriculture, and Labor) adds up to a whopping $1.581 trillion. For every $1 the federal government spends on NASA, it spends $98 on social programs. In other words, if we cut spending on social programs by a mere one percent, we could very nearly double NASA’s budget.”

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/898/1

  4. It’s not as expensive as being prepared to fight multiple theater conflicts.

    When the Cold War ended we should have shifted the military budget to space exploration. It would have kept the Keynesian wheels turning and would have brought us much more usable, practical…even marketable…technology. In the hands of the right sort of statesman, it might even have been the opening for serious grand diplomacy.

    And it’s not like our military (the procurement and the brass) is particularly competent in preparing for conflicts that the US might realistically be involved in. 13 carrier groups and we’re fighting guys with AK’s and Toyota Hiluxes.

  5. Uber: You’re reasoning is flawed there. We just said that the program is drastically underfunded, so you’re going to use the underfunding as proof of how relatively inexpensive it is? The important figure is how much it needs to get in order to be relevant again. Does it need to be doubled? Quadrupled? Increased ten-fold? I have no idea, but it’s what I’d like to know. It’s the question Obama’s facing now, and I’m so glad to see he’s tackling the issue with his trademark decisiveness.

    But I’m not trying to be the dark cloud on everybody’s parade. I do believe, as Sam pointed out, that NASA can provide much needed research and innovations that probably wouldn’t occur otherwise. The private sector doesn’t really have an interest in space (other than in getting satellites up there and, much more recently, tourism for the rich), so I believe the government really can do a lot of good with that.

  6. I just realized 10 fold is significantly less than I intended, so please ignore that. Chalk that up to my rampant case of stupid.

  7. I’m confused. You said it had a huge price tag. My point was, yes, it’s expensive, but compared to the total budget it’s barely a drop in the bucket. It’s freakin ridiculously underfunded. All science is. Here’s how bad it is. When former President Bush made his speech about going back to Mars back in 2001, virtually all funding for Fundamental Space Biology was shut down. Grants that were already funded suddenly didn’t have money in em because it was shifted over to engineering. There just isn’t enough money to do both.

  8. Tom, back in the 1960s, NASA developed a number of new technologies and made a bunch of others viable in order to reach the moon. Those technologies are now part of the foundation of our economy and our culture. In my opinion, the money spent on NASA makes sense because getting back to the moon, or to an near earth asteroid, or to Mars, will push technology again and will, if done properly, excite the young for exploration, science, and engineering.

    In addition, money spent on NASA produces many of the same technological advances that spending on military research does, but without many of the problems that come along with military spending and research.

    Finally, I’ve been of the opinion since I was a young man, entranced by stories of humanity spanning the galaxy, that the Earth was too fragile a basket for all our eggs. Expanding to the Moon, or to Mars, and ultimately out into the stars is the only way to ensure that humanity and its descendants survive.

    Of course, now I’m working in aerospace I also have a financial interest in space exploration. But most of my fellow engineers started working in aerospace because of the romance and challenge of making space safe for exploration by robots and people both.

    Ultimately, I think that private industry will replace a large part of NASA. And that’s a good thing – private companies will be able to get us in and out of space more efficiently and cost-effectively than the current government monopoly will. But that won’t happen until the commercial viability of space becomes real, and that won’t happen for decades yet. And it won’t happen at all without funding NASA.

  9. Having watched early shuttle launches with my Mom (which became a tradition), I’m on board with better funding for NASA. UberT’s right: Basic science is underfunded. It badly needs reinvigoration — if only to be put to work dealing with so many problems humanity faces (included a method of escape from our various follies).

    Thanks, Brian.

  10. The worst thing about it is, the space biology field is actually dying because of lack of funding. For instance, ASGSB (american society for gravitational and space biology) has pretty much had to beg people to show up at their meetings just to keep the society alive. But very few people actually have any new data to present within the field. And those that do, don’t have the funds to actually attend the meeting in the first place (I’m speaking from personal experience here).

    So, of course, scientists that are actually interested in spaceflight research are being forced to go to other places for funding. They have no choice.

    • And hard-learned expertise in spaceflight is dying. Rocket science is hard, but reproducing the scientific and engineering experience is harder. As I said above, the reason that spaceflight looks easy is because of all the times that something went wrong, the experts figured out what went wrong, and then made damn sure it didn’t happen again.

      That expertise is literally dying of old age.