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ATK's baby: the fast lane into space

Published: Monday, July 27 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

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.

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