Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
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AEM spotlight: Update from NASA's Steve Cook on Ares I

Steve CookSteve Cook, a BAEM graduate, is in charge of the office developing NASA's next-generation launch vehicles, which will carry astronauts back to the moon, and possibly beyond.

  Development of the Ares I launch vehicle, which is headed up by AEM alumnus Steve Cook, is well underway. Ares I is part of the larger Constellation program, which is set to take astronauts back to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. What follows is a question-and-answer with Mr. Cook regarding the state of the Ares project.

Congratulations on the launch of last week's scale model. What was that experience like (to see a rocket 1/100th the size of what will be off to the moon and to Mars)?

Thanks. Any rocket launch is fun. We’ve launched the Ares model for a couple of occasions, including a visit by author Homer Hickam and at the Team America Rocket Challenge held annually in The Plains, Virginia. It gives us all a taste for what's to come, and it gets people eagerly looking toward the future. It's also a great tool for inspiring school children of all ages to study math and science and become the next generation of scientists and engineers.

More generally, how is the project progressing?

Things are going great--very busy! We're deep into the design process now, with our preliminary design review coming up this summer. We completed a system definition review this past autumn, which ensured that the vehicle we're designing will perform the missions we are giving to it.

We've conducted over 4,000 hours of wind tunnel tests on scale models of the Ares I crew launch vehicle to make sure we've got just the right aerodynamic shape and that the vehicle will fly the way we expect it to.

Steve Cook

A scale model (1:100) is captured at launch. Courtesy of NASA.

Ares I
Image credit: NASA
The Ares I launch vehicle, which will hold NASA
next crew vehicle, Orion
We've been conducting early tests on the gas generator and turbopumps at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for the J-2X upper stage engine, which will power the Ares I's upper stage and the Ares V Earth departure stage. Those tests will help us finalize the design of the complete engine.

A number of parachute tests have been performed at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. These parachutes are part of the recovery system for the Ares I First Stage. Like the Space Shuttle program, we plan to recover these boosters after launch, so we want to verify that the parachutes will perform properly after reentry. We're dropping simulated loads out of cargo planes and then deploying the parachutes during the drop to test their ability to withstand these loads safely. With all the weight we need to simulate, we're setting Air Force records every time we drop something out of one of their planes!

As of December, we have awarded prime contracts for all of the major elements of the Ares I vehicle, with Boeing developing the upper stage and upper stage instrument unit, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne building the upper stage engine, and ATK Launch Systems building the first stage. In all, we're looking at around $5 billion in contracts spread over the next few years.

We've been building hardware for the Ares I-X, which is the first flight test of the Ares I. That flight is scheduled for April 2009, and it will be America's first opportunity to see a full-size Ares I fly, which should be pretty exciting.

What should interested citizens be looking forward to in the Constellation program over the next few months?

We'll finish manufacturing and then moving the hardware for the Ares I-X vehicle down to Kennedy Space Center in Florida between now and early September.

We have a three-parachute cluster test at Yuma coming up in April, and several more in the months that follow. The cluster test will be the first drop test of the full recovery system, which uses three chutes.

We'll be concluding hot-fire testing of the J-2X upper stage engine in the next couple months. Those tests will be used to finalize the engine's design prior to the J-2X critical design review in October.

Also, there will be a static test of the five-segment Solid Rocket Booster in April 2009. That will be a test at ATK's property in Utah, where the booster is mounted horizontally on the ground, and we run it through a complete launch burn cycle without flying it. We need these tests before we fly to make sure that everything works and that the booster will give us the thrust we need.

Any other thoughts?

I think the Ares project is really going to make a difference for the country. Flying the Ares I is just the beginning. Once we take over for the Shuttle in supporting the International Space Station, we'll start work on the Ares V cargo launch vehicle, so we can send people on to the Moon and beyond. Every bit of this project is challenging, but it's just the first of many steps along the way as we explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond.


Last Modified: Thursday, 31-Jan-2008 12:51:20 CST -- this is in International Standard Date and Time Notation