Score one for the rocket engineers.
To quote Ed Mango, the launch director for today’s Ares I-X rocket test, his team at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center did a “frickin’ fantastic” job on their first outing, which gathered data for the designers of NASA’s proposed Ares 1 crew launcher. It appears the engineers got all the information they needed, and everything went smoothly. "The team is tired, but extremely satisfied," said NASA Constellation program manager Jeff Hanley.
Good for them. They needed a win. It can’t be easy working on Ares these days, not with the big, black cloud hanging over the program’s head. Kennedy center director Bob Cabana referred to “the naysayers” during his post-launch congratulatory speech. Man, does he have that right.
Norman Augustine and his Presidentially-appointed panel on the future of human spaceflight didn't question the Ares rocket's technical soundness so much as its very purpose. When the program started, NASA hoped Ares 1 would be flying by 2012, soon enough to ferry astronauts to the space station shortly after the shuttle retires. Now, several budget cuts later, the agency says Ares can't fly until 2015. The Augustine committee (based on an independent assessment by the Aerospace Corporation) predicts it will be two years later than that.
Most advocates of human space exploration hope that by 2017 a commercial launcher will come along that can beat Ares' predicted high price. According to the data on page 16 of this presentation, Ares 1 will cost $13.5 billion to build and $557 million per launch, at the rate of two flights a year. That doesn't sound like much of an improvement over the space shuttle, which was widely criticized as being too expensive.
Ah well. That argument is for another day, and I feel a bit churlish raining on the Ares 1-X parade when they've already seen enough clouds for one day. So congratulations, folks. That was frickin' fantastic.