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The five-segment first stage of the Ares 1 rocket was test-fired at ATK Space Systems on Thursday. ((Colin Braley/Associated Press))

The first test of NASA's powerful moon rocket went off without a problem Thursday as more than a half-million kilograms of propellant ignited in a split second, sending a towering plume of sand and dust high into the Utah sky.

For more than two minutes, flames roared from the end of the 47-metre Ares I rocket, which was anchored horizontally to the ground on a hill above the Great Salt Lake.

"That was something, wasn't it?" said a grinning Charlie Precourt, a former shuttle astronaut and vice-president of Alliant Techsystems Inc.'s space launch systems.

More than 4,000 people witnessed the test while scores of others watched it on live television.

The rocket, capable of producing 1.6 million kilograms of thrust, is intended as a more powerful alternative to the two solid rocket boosters used to launch the space shuttle. Precourt called it "the most powerful rocket on the planet."

Thursday's test was the second attempt in two weeks after a similar one was scrubbed Aug. 27 because of problems with a computer component on the ground test system.

Funding questions

The test of the equipment, worth $75 million US, comes amid new questions about funding for the space program.

The Ares I has been a centrepiece of NASA's $100-billion US plan to return to the moon, suggested by President George W. Bush in 2004. The idea was that the Ares I would take the Orion crew capsule to the international space station in Earth orbit and to the moon, with the big equipment coming from a heavy lift rocket, still to be built, called Ares V.

But after money problems, delays, and technical issues, President Barack Obama appointed a special outside panel of experts to review NASA's future space plans. The committee's preliminary summary, issued Tuesday, said there wasn't enough money in the current budget to go to the moon and also suggested that the Ares I may not be the best option.

If NASA could secure funds, the report said, it should consider abandoning Ares I in favour of just using Ares V because it is more cost effective and flexible.

However, much of the $7.7 billion US NASA has spent on the moon return program has been on the Ares I and a full-scale rocket is at the Kennedy Space Center scheduled for a Halloween test.

"We clearly present an alternative to building Ares I," MIT professor Ed Crawley, a member of the panel, told The Associated Press this week.

NASA and the White House have not made a decision about what to do next. They are waiting for the full report to be submitted, which is a few weeks away.

Pleased with test

NASA and Alliant officials said they were pleased with Thursday's test — and happy to resolve the problem that plagued last month's attempted test. The culprit was a 30-year-old component in the ground control unit that helps move nozzle controls, which steer a rocket in flight. The piece has been replaced though it still isn't exactly clear why it failed, said Pat Lampton, NASA's chief engineer for the Ares first stage test.

On Thursday, a giant flame shot down the rocket's interior and ignited 680,000 kilograms of propellant — a solid chemical mixture the consistency of a pencil eraser — coating the booster's interior.

The blast from the test could be heard for kilometres and scoured a deep hole in the hillside. Blazing heat turned a layer of sand into a glasslike material.

"After witnessing what we just saw, it's pretty easy to become speechless," said Alex Priskos, NASA's Ares I first-stage manager.

The Ares I first stage is divided into five segments — each packed with propellant — designed to boost a 98-metre-long vehicle and its crew 58 kilometres into space in about two minutes. From there, the rocket would drop away and another engine would take over.

During the test, 650 sensors inside the rocket measured its performance and provided scientists with information about what might need to be tweaked for the next iteration as the model moves toward flight readiness. Researchers will spend weeks analyzing data from Thursday's test.

The test of Ares I first stage, under development since 2005, is one of seven scheduled for the motor design. The next is set for June 2010.