Locked in a massive horizontal test fixture near Promontory, Utah, a huge five-segment solid-fuel booster roared to life with a torrent of flame Tuesday, generating some 3.6 million pounds of thrust in a ground-shaking $75 million test of a rocket the Obama administration wants to cancel.
With engineers and spectators looking on from a safe distance, Alliant Techsystems' Development Motor No. 2, or DM-2, ignited at 8:27 a.m. PDT, blasting out a 600-foot-long jet of 5,600-degree flame and billowing clouds of exhaust as it consumed 1.3 million pounds of solid propellant.
Unlike the first five-segment booster firing last year, which was carried out at ambient temperature, DM-2 was cooled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit to collect data on how the rocket performed at the lower limit of its normal 40-to-90-degree operating range. Some 764 instrumentation channels were in place to support more than 50 test objectives.
Generating the equivalent of 22 million horsepower, the 12-foot-wide, 154-foot-long booster fired for about two minutes and five seconds before commands were sent to begin injecting tons of carbon dioxide into the rocket's nozzle to halt combustion.
"There's nothing better for an engineer than to see an amazing test like this," said Douglas Cooke, director of exploration at NASA headquarters. "It's the culmination of a lot of good design work, a lot of dedication by an excellent team. I want to congratulate the NASA-ATK team for what so far looks to be an excellent and successful test. It's spectacular to see all this harnessed energy--3.6 million pounds of thrust--that this booster produces. Just incredible."
Alex Priskos, manager of the Ares first-stage project at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., was equally pleased with the initial results.
"The chamber pressures and thrust pressures that we were expecting, you couldn't tell there were two lines there for the most part," he said. "So the preliminary data looks excellent. We captured all the data we were after and we're looking very much forward to being able to further assess it."
The five-segment booster, developed as part of NASA's Constellation moon program, is an upgraded, more powerful version of the four-segment rockets used to help space shuttles climb out of the lower atmosphere.
The five-segment version was intended to serve as the first stage of NASA's manned Ares I rocket, intended to boost new Orion crew capsules to low-Earth orbit to support the International Space Station after the shuttle is retired. To date, NASA has spent about $1 billion on the Ares I program.
NASA also planned to use five-and-a-half-segment boosters to help power a huge new heavy-lift rocket called the Ares V that would be used to propel manned capsules and landers to the moon.
The Obama administration wants to cancel the Constellation program in favor of commercial rockets and capsules to service the space station and yet-to-be-defined NASA rockets and spacecraft that would be used for future yet-to-be-defined deep space missions.
But supporters of the Ares design believe large solid-fuel boosters like the five-segment motor tested Tuesday will be crucial for development of a new heavy-lift rocket.
Under the Constellation program, NASA and ATK planned to carry out four development motor test firings--two are now complete--and three qualification motor tests. Each test firing costs about $75 million, Priskos said. As of now, only one more test motor, DM-3, is funded. The others are contingent on political consensus--and funding--for a post-shuttle manned space program
"Obviously, we're in an uncertain environment at this point," Cooke said. "The president has laid out an exploration future for us. There are bills in process in the House and Senate and we'll be working with all of them in the coming weeks and months to get to resolution.
"A real positive aspect of that is everybody is interested in the future exploration of space with people going beyond low-Earth orbit to multiple destinations. It will take the kind of work we saw coming out of this test today to lead us into that future."