Ares I-X: Light the Fire and Learn!

October 21st, 2009

NASA and our nation are about to embark on a new chapter in America’s human spaceflight program – one that draws upon a legacy of learning from the past.

The upcoming Ares I-X flight test signals a first step in a transition from the space shuttle program. For the first time in over 25 years, a new launch system sits ready for its countdown at the Kennedy Space Center. I was there two-and-a-half decades ago, as the Kennedy Space Center deputy director, for the shuttle’s maiden voyage. Today, as there were then, there will be many engineers and technicians watching with excitement and anticipation when Ares I-X launches.

NASA and contractor teams have worked long and hard to reach this milestone.

Ares I-X will be the first time since Mercury, Gemini and Apollo that we will have the opportunity for an unpiloted first flight of a human-rated launch system. The space shuttle’s maiden flight was flown by a two-person crew, John Young and Robert Crippen.

In my view – from the standpoint of crew risk, schedule, cost, and complexity – this test places NASA in a more advantageous position to gather early answers about the follow-on Ares launch vehicle than if it were a piloted first flight.

While no one expects anything to go wrong with Ares 1-X, every piece of data that will be collected from this flight test will make us smarter and bring the United States closer to realizing safer, more reliable and more affordable launch capability for this nation. Space program history, replete with both spectacular success as well as lessons learned, teaches us that fact.

The Ares I-X is a key step for the United States. We have not had a major development program for new human-rated launch capacity since the space shuttle was born in the late 1970s, first flying in 1981.

My own experience demonstrates a key axiom in the space business: Even with all the technological advancements in simulating space flight using paper analysis and computer modeling, the ultimate test is in taking flight. You must light the candle and try it for real. Granted, a first flight always has some risk. The Atlas, Titan and Apollo’s huge Saturn booster each required dedicated engineers to roll up their sleeves, wrestle with and eventually overcome challenges every step of the way. And the flight test of Ares I-X will be no different.

Similarly, getting Ares I-X to liftoff has meant tackling hard-to-solve issues. No doubt, there are surprises still lurking in the ready-for-flight vehicle. Unless there is a total and catastrophic failure, this Ares I-X first flight will be a major success for NASA and our nation.

We always learn a lot from the first flight of any new system, and not only for hardware verification. Preparing Ares I-X for flight also means shaking out ground support systems and software. But perhaps most importantly, this flight certifies the essential fuel of the effort: people.

It’s time to light the fire and learn!

Gerry Griffin is a former Apollo program Flight Director, Associate Administrator for Legislative Affairs, Deputy Director of the Kennedy Space Center and Dryden Flight Research Center, and Director of the Johnson Space Center. He is a current member of the Coalition for Space Exploration Board of Advisors.