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PROMONTORY -- There was fire, smoke and a thunderous roar in Northern Utah Friday. It was the first-ever firing of the booster assembly that may power the next generation of manned space flight.
The ATK company, formerly Thiokol, is building the bottom half of the Ares rocket. They're using essentially the same boosters that launched the space shuttle for three decades. But there are new twists too, and serious questions hanging over a program that would mean hundreds of Utah jobs for decades to come.
The test fire in Promontory
More than a million pounds of solid rocket fuel burned in just over two minutes, sending an enormous cloud of smoke, sand and dust high into the northern Utah sky. The booster assembly was positioned horizontally and anchored to the ground.
For more than two minutes, flames shot out the end of the horizontal rocket, which was anchored to the ground.
NASA and contractor Alliant Techsystems Inc. said they were pleased with the test.
NASA's plans for Aries
At Cape Canaveral, the world's tallest rocket is being prepared for launch. The boosters came from Utah by train.
Inside the world's largest room--in the Vehicle Assembly Building--NASA has assembled a rocket taller than a football field tipped on end. They're preparing a test launch to learn how it will perform.
Understanding how a rocket this shape, this weight and this tall will fly is the goal of the test, according to NASA engineer Trent Smith.
"It's been over three decades since anyone in the world's built a rocket this tall," Smith said.
No one will be on board for the first flight; it's a test rocket with dummy parts, although ATK's Utah-made bottom-half is for real.
"We know, obviously, how the booster works because of shuttle," said Bob Herman, a top ATK official assigned to Cape Canaveral.
But Ares is very unlike the shuttle. Five booster segments are stacked up into a "single-stick rocket." ATK also built the crucial steering mechanism.
"If you want to know how tough that is to control, go home tonight, grab a broomstick with the fuzzy part up top, and try to balance that and raise it up. You'll see it's not that easy," said," said NASA orbiter engineering manager Jon Cowart of NASA.
If ATK's steering mechanism doesn't work, it could spell big trouble.
"You would lose control of the vehicle, and it would probably start tumbling--and it would be a very bad day," Herman said.
The upcoming launch will also test separation of the Utah booster stage and the fall to the ocean, preferably with a soft landing so boosters can be returned to Utah for reuse.
"This is the largest set of parachutes that have ever been designed and will be flown," Herman said.
The future of the U.S. Space Program
But there is a dark cloud hanging over the whole program: soul searching at the highest levels of government about our future in space.
President Bush launched the Ares program, along with a plan to go back to the moon by 2020. President Obama is reconsidering the moon project and taking a fresh look at what role, if any, Ares should play.
"It's a distraction, obviously," Herman said. "Every day you hear 'Oh, Ares is going to be canceled' [or] 'No, Ares is not going to be canceled.'"
Ares did survive on a list of options provided to the president this week by a special commission. But government officials concluded there's not enough money in the budget to reach the moon.
NASA officials hope the president will keep the program alive with higher funding.
"For America, what drives our economy is technology development," Smith said. "And going to the moon drives technology development."
When liftoff occurs, Utah has a lot riding on it. The Ares would guarantee many ATK jobs in Utah as long as it's alive.
"We do have the contract now," Herman said. "So we're full steam ahead, and we'll keep doing that."
The Ares test launch is currently scheduled for Oct. 31.
Story compiled with contributions from John Hollenhorst and The Associated Press