This was the Ares 1-X rocket freshly stacked in the VAB about a week before rolling out to the pad. The 1-X was the first test vehicle for what may the start of our new family of launch systems. Mainly the Ares I. It's purpose is to see how bad the vibrations are going to be, refine our model data, test the separation and recovery of the first stage, and to see if we can get this shape to fly without cracking up.
The Ares I is a pretty straightforward idea. A solid rocket first stage that is a modified version of the space shuttles solid rockets, a second liquid fueled stage, and a payload of the Orion capsule with it's support module which is a similar setup to Apollo's command and service modules. It's commonly referred to as the 'single stick', and is intended to get a crew of at least four to low Earth orbit (LOE).
For a size comparison that erector set covering the lower parts of the rocket is about the height of the space shuttle. The tip of the fuel tank would emerge from that large central circle. This was a tall rocket. 325 feet tall I believe.
The 1-X only had a usable first stage. Everything above the solid rocket shape, the wider part, was a test module with a lot of test equipment and ballast, and was supposed to fall into the ocean after first stage separation.
The first challenge was to get it out to the pad. Which honestly was the part that I was worried about the most. The boosters were designed to hold the shuttle up in pairs, and their mounts to the mobile launch platform reflect that. This thing was very tall, and those four bolts on the aft skirt just looked really close together. In my opinion if it had fallen over on the way out to the pad it would have been worse than if the rocket crashed on take off. This would have been like grinding the lens wrong on Hubble X100. Thankfully someone did double-check their math and it made it out safely. After that it was just a wait for the weather.
The solid rocket motor is a very proven and understood system, and it's all that was on it. No astronauts, no liquid fuel, no other systems. Once it was lit it was going to go somewhere. The thing that held the launch up was the weather, which was kind of funny because it looked better than what we would have launched a shuttle in. The word of the day was triboelectrification which is a million dollar word for static. As a rocket passes through certain types of clouds it builds up a static electrical charge which can interfere with radio signals. Since the purpose of this flight was to collect data the test team didn't want that data stream interrupted. In addition there is a range safety device that will destroy the rocket in flight that may have been jammed. Since this is a test rocket, and no one KNOWS what it's going to do, range safety was being ultra safe. A small window opened up, and fortunately it only took 4 minutes to launch this bird.
Off it went.
That was the best my camera could do at about four miles away. Dumb luck that I caught that nifty shock wave effect. It was louder than I expected, and seemed to be slower in the beginning and then speed up as it got going. That could be an optical illusion, but the shuttle seems to be more constant as it leaves. we could see it all the way through separation and had to go inside to see that. I'm going to paraphrase a not so insiginificant comment that the launch commander made. We just rolled out a brand new, untested rocket, and had a successful launch on the first try and our ONLY hold up was the weather. That doesn't happen to often.
I think the phrase is that everything was nominal right up until first stage separation. That's when we started learning new things. :P The separation motors engaged before the first stage separated from the second. That in effect slowed the entire rocket, and I think that started both of them tumbling. The first stage was designed to tumble, but the second should have kept flying straight. The effect had the two parts doing this little dance, and I thought they were going to hit each other for a while. Keeping up it's flawless record gravity worked as advertised, and they both fell like they should. The drogue chute popped and straightened the first stage out, but when it was time for the main parachutes to deploy only one of them fully inflated. This means the first stage hit the ocean much faster and was significantly damaged. It's bent like busted pipe.
This is going to be something that must be worked out as we intend to recover that stage every time.
Overall a very successful launch. First new launch since 1981. There is now a lot of discussion that the next launch (Ares I-Y) is scrubbed and that the next test vehicle will incorporate some of it's goals. No idea what or when that is going to be as of now.
Next up is an Atlas on the 14th with Atlantis hopefully launching on the 16th.