So, what's the big deal then?
Well, with the retirement of the Shuttle fleet scheduled for the end of 2010, this is an important moment of visibility as it will be well over 4 years until the US is able to fly humans into space again. During the interim period there will be a complete reliance upon partner nations to loft astronauts to the ISS - currently the only viable off-world destination. The big deal is that NASA is actively working on getting the US back in the driving seat, but as usual it its being asked to build an amazing thing with less of a budget than the annual profit of the average bank.
So, what time did you say the launch was again?
Ahh, I didn't! This is a very different launch than the likes of a Shuttle launch, where there is a specific target, like the ISS or Hubble. The purpose in this case is a systems test, where the target is limited to the ability to track and communicate. It will also test ground hardware, facilities, and operations. All this contributes to a very wide launch window and allows plenty of time to iron out bugs and glitches that would normally postpone a launch. The launch window for Ares I-X is from 08:00 – 12:00 EDT (12:00 – 16:00 UTC).
So, isn't it really just another Apollo?
It does look similar, doesn't it? The Ares rocket is essentially a crew vehicle atop a single solid rocket booster, just like the boosters on the Shuttle. Conceptually it is a return to the Apollo era design, with multiple stages in a single stack. That doesn't mean it is necessarily a step backwards though. Ares has nearly 40 years of human spaceflight activity since Apollo going into its design. There have been many improvements in safefy and design since then, as well as a better understanding of our place in space - as a planet, rather than politically bound countries. Apollo grew out of a race to supremacy, but Ares is comes from a desire to propel mankind toward a permanent presence on other worlds.
So, why not just send the Shuttle to the Moon?
The Shuttle may have looked cool and was in all regards completely reusable, but it was extremely heavy, which effectively limited it to orbiting the Earth. The Shuttle can never leave the confines of Low Earth Orbit and it would be useless as a Moon vehicle. It is too heavy to hurl it Moonward and couldn't land there anyway due to the lack of atmosphere. NASA returned to the single stack concept, but this time they are increasing the payload size by lofting the Moonbound hardware ahead of the astronauts, who will rendezvous and dock with the hardware in Low Earth Orbit first.
Until we can assemble hardware off-world, like on the Moon for instance, we are limited to this approach to go beyond our cozy little Earth-Moon system.
More information here.
Keep an eye out for updates on the Ares I-X launch.
Until then, Happy Spacing, Spacers!