Even during NASA’s mature Space Shuttle program, the space agency was exploring new means of getting crews to orbit and beyond. The Space Shuttle was only designed for and capable of delivering crews and shuttle payloads to Earth orbit.  NASA’s exploration office looked at new vehicles to get back to the Moon, and perhaps even Mars.

In 2004, as a means of assigning a high profile space program to his administration, President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration. The emphasis was on human exploration. To achieve this, America needed new launch vehicles to replace the Space Shuttle. After many trade studies, as they are called in the aerospace industry, NASA unveiled two launch vehicles having mythological names the space agency had always been fond of using. The launch vehicles were the Ares I and the Ares V.

At the time, NASA was still locked into a design engineering methodology of engineering the launch vehicles through its various field centers, like the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. It would work with prime contractors on development of the launch vehicles, like it had for the Saturn I, Saturn V and the Space Shuttle, and then closely monitor the contractors who built the launch vehicles. NASA always had performed propulsion testing at its own facilities, going back to the Apollo program.

The Ares I was conceived to be the Crew Launch Vehicle that would take astronauts to low Earth orbit. The Ares V was designed to take heavy deep space upper stages to the Moon or Mars, after the crew capsule had docked with the Ares V upper stage. The combined spacecraft would then travel to the Moon, or on to Mars if that was the mission.  However, the national imperative to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon, which was true in the 1960s, was absent in the 21st century.  Congress was unwilling to fund deep space human space exploration to the tune of many billions of dollars, and NASA was reluctant to reveal the true costs of doing so.

The Space Shuttle would eventually need to be retired, so the work on Ares I and Ares V proceeded using allotted funds from its annual budget. In an effort to reduce costs of developing an all new launch vehicle for astronauts, NASA chose to adopt a modified space shuttle solid rocket booster as the first stage of Ares I manufactured by ATK in Utah. . The second stage of this rocket would use a single space shuttle main engine (SSME).

The crew capsule to be launched by the Ares I was given the name Orion. NASA was heavily involved in the design of this capsule as well. As design of the capsule progressed, it proved to be too heavy for the four segment SRB of the Ares I to launch, so an additional SRB segment was added. The second stage propulsion was changed from the SSME to a variant of the venerable J-2 engine used for decades, and named this engine the J-2X.

Rollout of the Ares I-X to the launch pad.

As with any new rocket development, the Ares I experienced significant problems. The initial test launch kept being pushed further into the future. Finally, the maiden flight to test the booster, and dummy second stage and Orion boilerplate capsule, was set for October 2009. The Ares I-X would be launched from NASA’s Launch Complex 39-B using a modified space shuttle launch platform. Essentially, the Ares I would be secured to one of the SRB locations of the space shuttle launch platform.

Launch day for the Ares I-X Development Test Flight was set for October 27, 2009 but was scrubbed due to poor weather. It was rescheduled for the 28th. The weather was perfect that day. Countdown proceeded without significant delays, and the Ares I-X lifted off at 11:30 AM. Several decades had passed since the launch of a new rocket from LC 39B, so this was a historic moment for NASA. This would be the only launch of an Ares I launch vehicle in its history.

Under President Obama, the Augustine Committee evaluated the costs Project Constellation, of which the Ares I was a part. The Committee concluded that NASA would not receive the level of funding from Congress. to achieve the objectives and costs of Project Constellation. During the 2010 budget negotiations for NASA, Project Constellation was effectively defunded.

The Ares V had its advocates in the Senate, however, and the Ares V was reconfigured somewhat and renamed the Space Launch System (SLS). NASA is proceeding with SLS development. However, many wonder, in light of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and the Blue Origin New Glenn orbital payload commercial launch vehicles currently being developed, if the SLS will eventually suffer the same fate as the Ares I.

Anthony Young ©Personal Spaceflight Advisors LLC
direct email: anthonyhyoung@gmail.com