PROMONTORY, Box Elder County — More than 20 miles west of Box Elder's tiny community of Corinne, under a hint of fall in the morning air, NASA engineers and Alliant Techsystems officials cheered and applauded loudly after the Tuesday test firing of the Ares solid rocket motor.
"You don't achieve harnessing that type of energy without know-how, smarts and experience," said Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of Space Launch Systems for ATK's Aerospace Systems Group. "The results you see today don't come overnight."
The successful test firing went off as scheduled at exactly 9:27:22 a.m., preceded by a breathtakingly quiet hush that took in the countdown's final minutes.
"3:14 — We are go for DM-2 static test."
"2:11 — Computer systems calibrated."
"T-minus 60 seconds — Motor committed."
At that time, the wail of a siren warned of the test to come.
It took 125 seconds to burn through 1.4 million pounds of propellant, which created an extraordinarily powerful burst of flames and heat that shook the ground a little more than a mile away at the corporate view site. In comparison, witnesses to a space shuttle launch are kept 3.5 miles away.
"It never gets old," said ATK spokeswoman Trina Patterson. "It's breathtaking."
Earlier in the morning, with a countdown of 34 minutes and 40 seconds to go, the crowd of several hundred employees from NASA, ATK and numerous subcontractors milled around an overlook of the test site, chattering excitedly — their mood like that of children on Christmas Eve.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, addressed reporters gathered for the test firing and said the demonstration of the motor — measuring 12 feet in diameter and 154 feet in length — underscores how important space exploration remains for the U.S.
"It's really remarkable the amount of expertise that goes into even a test like this," Hatch said. "I don't want to be dependent on Russia to take our people into space."
The five-segment motor, known as DM-2, underwent what is called a "cold motor" test on Tuesday.
Chillers had been working to achieve an optimum temperature of about 40 or 42 degrees Fahrenheit since July 6.
"Cooling down 1.4 million pounds of propellant takes time," said Kent V. Rominger, ATK's vice president of test and research operations.
A total of 53 "design objectives" were measured through more than 760 instruments that gathered information on the success of motor upgrades — such as a redesigned nozzle — and the testing of new materials in the motor joints.
When fired, the motor produced a maximum thrust of 3.6 million pounds, or the equivalent of 22 million horsepower.
Last fall's test firing of the DM-1 motor was conducted at 83 degrees Fahrenheit. Such differences in test temperatures are designed to assess how components perform under the extremes, and next year's test firing of the DM-3 will be another "hot" test to evaluate the performance of thousands of pounds of insulation.
That test has been slated to be performed in September 2011.
With that test more than a year off, the attention was most focused on the outcome of Tuesday's apparently smooth demonstration.
"The preliminary data we've gathered so far looks absolutely excellent," said Alex Priskos, first-stage manager for Ares Projects at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
"It captured all the data we were after."
The Ares has been touted as the way to get men and women to the moon by 2020, but its fate is in question after President Barack Obama announced the direction of the nation's space program would change.10 comments on this story
That officially put the program called "Constellation" in jeopardy and prompted more than 1,600 layoffs at Utah companies, including ATK.
Utah's congressional delegation has lobbied hard to save the program, including pushing passage of the NASA Authorization Act, which would position Utah to remain in its pivotal position in solid rocket motor construction.
Priskos and others at Tuesday's event said the successful test will help forge the technology to propel the U.S. toward a deep-space exploration program and, most importantly, serve to reignite political support for the effort.