Ares launch successful despite parachute failure

NASA has deemed the test flight of the Ares I-X rocket in October a success, despite the still-unexplained failure of two parachutes.
Three parachutes deploy from the first stage of the Ares I-X rocket following its launch in October. One of the lines leading to a parachute broke, visible here in the lower right. ((NASA))
NASA has deemed the test flight of the Ares I-X rocket in October a success, despite the still-unexplained failure of two parachutes.

"It was successful in so many ways, to be honest with you," Ares engineering manager Marshall Smith told reporters Thursday

Bob Ess, project manager for Ares I-X, said the test launch successfully demonstrated new computer guidance, navigation and control systems.

"The algorithms were perfect and performed flawlessly; a key result for validating our [computer] models," said Ess.

Smith said the six-minute test flight showed that NASA "can push forward with the design of Ares I."

One problem occurred after the rocket's two stages separated at an altitude of 45 kilometres and the first stage parachutes malfunctioned.

Only one of the three main parachutes on the rocket's first stage deployed properly. One parachute failed to inflate and the other didn't deploy fully, causing the booster to splash down hard into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving a dent in its side.

The first stage of the Ares I-X rocket bobs in the Atlantic Ocean following its October test launch. ((United Space Alliance))
Smith said one parachute may have inflated too quickly, putting too much strain on the lines, causing them to break. The broken lines may have then damaged the second parachute, causing its partial failure.

The empty second stage, as planned, broke apart and was not recovered.

Three cable connectors also failed to separate on the rocket's forward skirt dome, but this was considered a possibility before the launch and didn't result in any problems.

NASA reported that the first 4½ minutes of data from the flight recorder had been recovered, but the remaining 80 seconds was "still in work."

Thursday's report on the Ares I-X launch was the first of three scheduled from NASA. The next two are slated for late January and late February.

The Ares I-X is the first version of a series of rockets set to carry the U.S. space agency's next-generation Orion spacecraft after the space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. There are only five scheduled flights left for the shuttles.

The Orion-Ares combination is not due to launch with astronauts on board until 2017 at the earliest. That poses a problem for the U.S. contribution to the International Space Station, which is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2015.

NASA has invested $445 million US in the test, but the White House is still weighing whether it wants to continue with the project or scrap it in favour of other rockets and destinations.

NASA is considering more test flights for the Ares, possibly in 2012 or 2013.