Something Old, Something New, On the Way to Mars
Steve Cook, NASA’s Ares project manager, describes the next generation of space exploration rockets. With the enthusiasm of a scoutmaster and the credentials of a rocket scientist, Steve Cook, project manager for NASA's massive Ares I and Ares V space booster rockets, eagerly laid out NASA's plan to send humans to Mars and return them safely. At a July 24 presentation at EAA AirVenture 2006 in Oshkosh, Wis., Cook described NASA's response to the President's vision for space exploration, articulated in 2004.

Image left: Steve Cook, NASA's Ares project manager, described the next generation of space exploration rockets to an audience in Oshkosh, Wis. on July 24. (Photo by Frederick A. Johnsen)

A Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) space capsule, looking a lot like an enlarged Apollo capsule, will ride into Earth orbit atop a rocket christened Ares I. Meanwhile, the rest of 550 tons of cargo needed to complete a rocket capable of going to Mars will be hefted into Earth orbit by the massive Ares V. Once mated over the Earth, the combination will head for Mars on a six-month journey that will be the ultimate reality show for the astronauts involved, Cook commented. To give the explorers more elbow room on the long trip, NASA may come up with an inflatable crew quarters section.

The Ares I rocket will stand 321 feet tall; Ares V stretches to 358 feet, and the classic Apollo Saturn V stood 364 feet above ground. The Ares rockets will use the same Vehicle Assembly Building built for Apollo and converted for the space shuttles at Kennedy Space Center. The heritage trail goes on, as Ares will launch from Pad 39-B, another famed Apollo landmark later adapted for space shuttles. And this reunion of super-heroes continues, as outsize sections of the Ares rockets will be ferried aboard NASA's Super Guppy aircraft, modified in the 1960s with a bulbous fuselage to carry pieces of the Saturn V.

Ares I will use a lengthened version of the shuttle's current solid rocket booster motor as its first stage. As with the shuttle, this booster will fall away when spent, lowered by parachute into the Atlantic Ocean where it can be retrieved for re-use. Unlike the shuttle, the booster will be flying faster, at Mach 6, when its separation from the rest of Ares I occurs. Cook said this makes it imperative to impart a tumble to the booster casing, or it will overheat on one side from friction as it falls back toward the sea. The second stage of Ares I will be a derivative of a Saturn V rocket motor, now called J-2X.

Ares V will be another beneficiary of space shuttle technology, strapping on two of the solid rocket boosters originally developed for the shuttle. For the Ares project, the solid rocket propellant will be shaped differently inside the rocket tube to obtain optimum combustion characteristics for the Ares missions, Cook explained. Ares V will also incorporate the largest liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen rocket stage ever created, he said.

With only 33 months until the planned launch date of first test Ares I – not long in rocket development terms – Cook says the emphasis is on using proven, robust components. In a few cases, that has even involved reverse-engineering Apollo-era rocket valves when original drawings could not be located. "This is about rebuilding our capability industrially," Cook told his EAA audience. He reminded the crowd that the Ares and Crew Exploration Vehicle combination represent only the second American effort to create a vehicle capable of leaving low earth orbit; the other was Apollo.

While Mars is a goal, the Moon is considered a vital steppingstone on the way, Cook said. New lunar explorers will arrive four at a time in the CEV. Back when Apollo's three-person crews went to the moon, only two could reach the lunar surface, with the third remaining in lunar orbit for their return. In the future, the CEV promises to take four astronauts to the moon, with all of them landing there. The Moon will enable explorers to test the capability to remain on another planetary body for weeks at a time, says Cook. Scientists already look forward to an increased ability to land anywhere on the Moon, unlike the limited Apollo capability. One benefit could be the placement of telescopes on the dark side of the moon, peering deeper into space, Cook said.

Steve Cook has a tall order to fill. After Ares I proves itself in 2009, it is supposed to heft the CEV by 2014 if not sooner, with humans returning to the Moon by 2020. The goal is to extend human presence across the solar system and beyond. This will be accomplished with a coordinated use of human and robotic missions. And men and women like NASA's Steve Cook will make it happen.

Because they really are rocket scientists.

By Frederick A. Johnsen
NASA Public Affairs
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