PROMONTORY, Box Elder County — Standing at the businesses of the new Ares I rocket, ATK Rocket Systems Chief Engineer Gary Bates is every bit the proud papa. This is the baby that's going to carry mankind faster and deeper into space — way beyond the mere 250,000 miles to the moon.
"That trip is just a few days," Bates said. "This is how we'll get to Mars." That's a journey that takes three months, one way.
Although it will be for the purse string holders in Washington and a special review committee to say whether the United States goes back to the moon and on to the Red Planet, Bates is keeping his eye on the next stage of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Constellation Program — the a horizontal static test firing here on Aug. 25. It is to be the first of seven ground tests leading up to four unmanned flight tests between now and 2015 when it is to take the first crew to the International Space Station.
A week ago, the 40th anniversary of the first steps on the moon and the unveiling of the Ares I, Bates and the fleet of engineers at ATK mentioned first and often that they are proudest of the crew safety enhancements that make the 321-foot-tall Ares I safer than launch systems for the shuttle.
The new rocket makes the shuttle, which will be retired next year, look like a railroad car next to a knitting needle. Bates and others at ATK describe getting the Ares I off the ground something like the difference between throwing a football and a javelin: the Ares I has the impulse power 24 percent stronger, generating 22 million horsepower with a thrust versus time ratio that in effect puts a crewed mission of four 35.5 miles above the Earth in a little more than two minutes.
Charlie Precourt, an ATK vice president and four-time shuttle astronaut who led the mission that took the first Russian cosmonauts to the International Space Station, has a real world notion of what riding that much power feels like, but believes sitting atop that much harnessed energy will be "a ride unlike anything so far."
Riding the first stage of the Shuttle, he told the Deseret News at the Ares I unveiling, "is hard to equate to any other earthly experience. The closest thing to it is if you have ever ridden in a very expensive sports car and the driver stomps on the accelerator. It's like that, only the gas pedal just keeps going down further and further; there's no floorboards to stop it. This will be that, only massively turbocharged."
That's in part because the weight the Ares I throws is about half the "gross liftoff mass" of the Shuttle — 2 million pounds compared to 4.5 million pounds at lift-off.
The Ares also has 240,000 pounds more maximum thrust than the twin first stage boosters that the shuttle piggybacks on its way into orbit. It's what Precourt calls "a more elegant" design and what Bates terms "an equally more robust" launching mechanism.
The new rocket is not so much changes in the mechanics but refinements gleaned over more than 50 years.
"The basic approach really hasn't changed that much and isn't that much different than the physics behind the rockets that sent the first satellites." Precourt explains. "We've just gotten so much better at evaluating what is going on in those first critical minutes and refining things."
It's all a matter of accounting for, controlling and making modifications of the three primary functions under way at liftoff — pressure, time and output. The huge nozzle at the bottom of the rocket is allowed to set its own pitch and yaw then seat itself for what it determines is the best position to get the maximum thrust at lift-off.
Hardly anything below the crew that is seated some 300 feet above is static as it lifts off. There are some 630 sequences that have to engage for a safe exit from Earth. Chief among the safety additions are the removal of the wings, which have been a concern on every shuttle flight and proved tragic on Columbia. Debris hit the Columbia's wings on takeoff and in effect doomed the vehicle upon return through the Earth's atmosphere.
On the Ares I, the crew rides atop the rocket attached to another rocket of sorts — one that will jump off and away from the main booster in an emergency. That assembly is also built primarily by ATK, and the company says it's a major factor that makes the Ares boosters twice as safe during the initial burn as any launch vehicle built so far.
Whether it ultimately gets off the ground at all has more to do with earthbound review of NASA's future than tweaking avionics. The Augustine Commission, which is reviewing the entire Constellation Program, is to provide a review to President Barack Obama next month. ATK engineers and managers pointed out last week that even though NASA's $17 billion budget is 0.7 percent of the total federal budget, NASA has sent dozens of people into space, sent robots to other planets, repaired in space the Hubble Space Telescope so it works like it's supposed to, added space to the space station while employing engineers and has employed a multitude of professionals engaged in getting back to the moon, not just socking away millions for themselves.
The scientists, engineers and astronauts at ATK wouldn't say so for attribution, but they firmly believe the space program would have been literally "money in the bank" for the economy, and a far better stimulus package than just bailing out the banks.