Echoes of history - Saturn V and Ares I-X
The two images above are 40 years apart. In the first, the Saturn V rocket of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins creates a vapor cone as they make their way into history in 1969. The second, Ares I-X follows suit with its own vapor cone. Rockets! That's what people want to see. Tall, slender, majestic rockets as they pierce the sky en-route to space.
Contrast the above images with the vapor cone of the Shuttle.
Space Shuttle Vapor Cone
A beautiful thing for sure, but not as pristine and perfect as the vapor cone of a single rocket. Well okay I'm being a tad dramatic, but you get the point. The Shuttle is of course a rocket and then some. It is three rocket motors strapped to a huge fuel tank that has two rockets strapped to the sides, it's almost rocket porn! But all that power and beauty and the darned thing is has been stuck in low Earth orbit for decades. What we need is a big powerful jaw dropping beasty of a rocket - a veritable pulsating phallic stack of raw flaming rocket powered grunt that could haul a small city up to the Moon and not even break a sweat. The launch of Ares I-X marks a return to being able to use such glaringly over the top prose again. In short, rockets are back, and they don't want their mommy.
Ares V - The next BIG Rocket
One thing to note about the importance of the single rocket stack concept is safety - unlike the Shuttle, a disaster at launch is survivable. In the classic stack the astronauts sit at the very top with all the power beneath them. Should anything go wrong, there is a launch abort system - that slender needle at the very top - a collection of small rockets that literally yanks the crew module away from the explosion. The shuttle design prohibits such an abort system, and with the crew near the middle of the most volatile part of the stack - the fuel, if anything goes wrong - like it did so horribly during the Challenger disaster - the crew is a sitting duck. This applies to re-entry too, with the heat shield of a single stack crew module safely shielded from and above any debris hits at high velocity, but the exposed wing leading edges of a Shuttle are prone to damage from debris and even the likes of a high velocity bird strike.
With single stack rockets back on to the plate of American space exploration, maybe the country can re-capture that all too brief love affair it had with slender needles again. Maybe the importance of getting our butts off this planet and figuring out the cosmos will become glamorous once more. Maybe building cool stuff in low Earth orbit will be behind us and we can get back on track with building even cooler stuff on other worlds. And maybe I won't feel like I'm the only geek who loves rockets anymore.
Happy Spacing Spacers!