Message from Ares I-X Mission Manager — Bob Ess

Labor Day is behind us and the I-X team is now in the “home stretch” for launch.   We are on track for October 31st, which is only 51 days from now. Over the last few weeks a substantial amount of work has been completed on I-X. On August 13th, we completed stacking and final mechanical assembly of the 327-foot rocket, making it the tallest rocket in the world!  Since that time, the team has been routing electrical cables throughout the interior of the Upper Stage Simulator as well as on the outside of the solid rocket motor. In addition, final electronic components have been installed including rate gyros and a test version of the flight computer.  The vehicle is covered in over 700 special sensors (Development Flight Instrumentation or DFI) which have been painstakingly tested, one by one to assure their function during the launch.

The next major milestone is the Vehicle Power Up, which began on September 11 and will continue through the 15th. This is the first time that either ground power or on-board battery power is applied to the electronics as a system installed into the vehicle. This is a significant step forward toward launch. After a successful power up, the team has several weeks of integrated avionics testing where each system and component will be tested and the vehicle will be run through many simulated mission profiles to ensure everything is go for flight.

In parallel with all these activities on the vehicle, a lot of work is occurring at launch pad 39-B.     The vehicle stabilization system is being installed to the Fixed Service Structure (FSS). This will hold the vehicle in place during the launch preparation at the pad and will be removed approximately 1-2 hours prior to liftoff.  Other modifications to the pad, like new cooling capability for the avionics during ground test, are complete and awaiting the arrival of the rocket.

The launch team has already been training for the launch process. Several simulations have occurred to give the launch team experience on how to handle any problems during the countdown with this unique vehicle. Simulations will continue into October with each simulation increasing in fidelity and details of launch process and possible anomalies.  

The Ares I-X team is getting really close to completing this historic launch. A huge amount of knowledge and data will be gained from this flight that will help NASA develop and refine future launch vehicles. This data applies to all future launch vehicles especially those that are an evolution of current launch vehicle technology and capability.

Since the inception of this project in 2006, the NASA team along with its contractors have attempted and succeeded to do something unprecedented. This flight is truly historic not just in the amount of data that will be received but in the benefits already realized.  Five different NASA centers are working hand in hand to create this new system. We have made changes in how we use computer models for key aspects of such a launch vehicle and NASA, as a whole, has become more tightly integrated into one productive group that has shown it can address and solve any technical problem that comes our way.   

Keep a look out for more information on I-X: The First Flight of a New Era.

— Bob Ess
Ares I-X Manager

Practice Makes Perfect

The Ares I-X Launch Team spent the day in the firing room preparing for the upcoming launch. The team conducted a simulation of the last 50 minutes in the launch countdown.

Now this is no walk in the park simulation. The team was thrown different scenarios and issues that could come up during the actual launch countdown, including issues that could ultimately cause a launch delay. In fact, this specific set of simulations was focused on problems that the sim (simulation) team knew would prevent a launch in order to give the I-X launch team practice on handling emergency and stressful situations. All of this is designed to identify any problems in the countdown planning process and any vague areas in the launch commit criteria while stressing the team beyond what we ever expect to see on a real launch day. Sounds like fun, huh?

The simulation required support from Kennedy’s Firing Room 1, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Hangar AE, the Software Integration Lab, or SIL, and team members from multiple NASA Centers. This was the first simulation with the entire team. The next simulation is planned for the end of September and will include the Launch Advisory Management Team.

Rock-a-bye Rocket

Even though the rocket is now stacked and sitting on the mobile launch platform in Kennedy Space Center’s VAB, there is still a lot of testing and prep work to be done before it’s ready to roll out to the pad. Over the weekend (Aug. 29-30) the rocket underwent two days of modal testing to make sure it’s ready to stand up to the environments it’s about to find itself in.

The testing required a total of 44 accelerometers — a device that measures movement — to be installed on the flight test vehicle. And to put those on the vehicle it took more than 27,000 feet of cable.  That’s more than 5 miles!

During the testing, vibrations were mechanically introduced into the rocket by four hydraulic shakers simulating the same kind of vibrations expected during flight so the effects could be monitored.  A sway of the vehicle was then manually introduced (with a little help from Mission Manager, Bob Ess and Deputy Mission Manager Steve Davis) to create a lateral, back and forth motion so the team could measure how the rocket reacts.

Here’s a little fast-motion clip of Steve and Bob rocking the rocket (Flickr).

This part of the testing was important because it simulated the conditions the rocket could experience as it rolls out to Kennedy’s Launch Pad 39B, the wind conditions at the launch pad before it launches, and what it would experience during flight at first stage ignition. 

NASA did some similar testing years ago on the Saturn V at Kennedy Space Center in the 60s. For those tests a group of people sat up on a platform and rocked the vehicle back and forth with their sneakered feet from one side, while another group of people pulled on the rocket with ropes from the other side. The group appropriately named it the “Tennis Shoe Test.”

The completion of the Ares I-X modal testing is an important step for the mission because it clears the way for next week’s Integrated Vehicle Power Application or systems power up test, which will be the first time that all of the electrical systems, control boxes and sensors will be turned on together and powered up.