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Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
Clouds of brown and white smoke billow into the air as Thiokol successfully fires a rocket booster at Promontory on Tuesday.

PROMONTORY, Box Elder County — Pelting rain and concern about distant lightning built suspense that a shuttle rocket booster might not be tested as planned Tuesday.

Then the sky cleared, the countdown resumed and the motor ignited with an incandescent flame.

Following a pause due to sound traveling slower than light, a throaty bellow slammed spectators stationed 1.3 miles away from the test frame. As the firing continued, the long, furious flame licked at the hillside. Billowing white and brown clouds tumbled and piled high into the sky. Hundreds of spectators were delighted.

Soon afterward, NASA announced that ATK Thiokol had successfully fired a solid rocket booster, "one of several annual tests . . . to qualify any proposed changes to the rocket motor and to guarantee that new materials meet safety requirements."

"These annual tests closely replicate a space shuttle launch," said a release from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Although the two hours of suspense about the test ended with a roar, the larger question remained unanswered — about the future of Thiokol's solid fuel booster production after the motors are no longer needed for the shuttle, due to retire in 2010.

But rumor, at least, has the future looking toward the moon and Mars.

Officials with both the company and NASA refused to confirm reports of a leaked NASA memo supposedly saying the northern Utah rocket builder will play a vital role in the next generation of rockets.

A rumor has been circulating that NASA wants Thiokol's boosters to power spacecraft that may carry Americans back to the moon and eventually to Mars. One Internet site, "The Houston Chronicles," speculates the northern Utah rocket maker "is currently the leading candidate for next generation launch systems."

Scott Horowitz, director of space transportation and exploration for Thiokol — a former astronaut who has orbited in four shuttle flights — said the company has been working for a couple of years on its designs for the next generation of space vehicles. A crew-launch vehicle and a heavy-lift cargo vehicle both would use Thiokol motors, he said in an interview shortly before the test.

For the crew-launch vehicle, he said, "The first stage is the same as the motor that we're going to see out here tested today, a four-segment, solid-rocket motor."

The heavy-lift vehicle would be like the shuttle lifters but with a cargo shell instead of the shuttle. The twin boosters would be bigger — five segments instead of the four used with the shuttle.

"Everything that we know is that NASA is completing . . . what they're calling their 60-day study. They have to understand the architecture of how to go back to the moon and Mars. And that architecture should define the launch vehicles to go carry that out," Horowitz said.

Every indication is that when Congress returns from summer break, possibly in the first week of September, NASA may announce its plans, he said.

Asked if he places any credence in the supposed leaks, Horowitz said, "I never listen to leaks. . . . There's so much information out there. All I know is that we've been doing the studies and NASA has been doing their studies, and we believe that the type of configurations we've been looking at are probably the most suitable to carry out NASA's missions."

Tuesday's test had a number of unusual features, including live X-ray imaging of the rocket nozzle to see how it performed. Another was stresses that were built into the 126-foot-long motor for test purposes.

In various tests, Thiokol will "put a cut in a seal or we'll actually take a piece of material out somewhere, or take out some lining material, to make sure that the engineers understand exactly how much margin they have left," Horowitz said.

The engineers will then "calculate the predicted performance of the part, and it also stresses out their design tools."

After the motor is fired, Thiokol will check to see what happened during the test — how well performance met expectations.

With the X-ray examination, the nozzle is studied while 5,000-degree gases flow through.

"We can actually, real-time, go ahead and look at that with X-ray. It's like a movie shot in X-ray," he said.

"I'm very excited. It's always good to see space hardware in action here," said Lt. Col. Rick Sturckow of Houston, an astronaut who has flown aboard the space shuttle and is designated for a future flight, STS-117, which is to loft a piece of the International Space Station Into orbit.

He said he would love to go on a moon voyage eventually, "if someone will send me."

David Beaman, deputy manager of the solid rocket motor project at Marshall Space Flight Center, noted that rocket motor production slowed during the investigation of the accident that destroyed Columbia 2 1/2 years ago.

"What we want to do here is use this motor to demonstrate that what we've built over the last couple years is consistent with what we've built in the past, and that it's ready to support the program," Beaman said. "It's a pretty big motor. It's got about 1.1 million pounds of propellant."

When asked what will happen when the shuttle is phased out, Beaman said: "This (test) is actually a support for exploration. If the new vehicle is shuttle-derived or something like that, we'll use this data to support where we go in the future. So this isn't just shuttle support; it's for the future also."

After the test, new Thiokol employee Michelle Yung said, "Oh, it was really exciting. After the first shock you can feel your pants flutter when it hits you, and then afterward the whole earth is shaking."

"Very neat, yeah. It's pretty inspirational, too," she added. "This is what we get to build here. It's what we do."

Horowitz said the test brought back "a lot of great memories of flying on the space shuttle. Any time we light a rocket motor it's just truly exciting."

The firing looked perfectly nominal, he said.

"Looked great!" said Sturckow, giving a thumbs-up gesture.

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