Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mike Griffin, Saturn I, and the Potemkin Rocket

After three years of anticipation, the "Potemkin Rocket" known as Ares I-X has launched. The flight appears to have been nominal. While Ares I-X was a low-fidelity test of a bad rocket design, the test's fundamental flaws should not detract in any way from the Ares I-X program personnel who devoted the last three years of their life to making this test a success. While I strongly believe that Ares I-X should have waited until the 5-segment SRB was available, Ares I-X still taught NASA personnel much about ground handling operations and ocean recovery for the Ares rockets. Perhaps the thrust oscillation questions will look a little bit more clear after the test, in spite of the SRB that was used for the launch being so different from the final SRB.

Ares I-X also serves as a backhanded endorsement of Michael Griffin's approach to Project Constellation. Ares got a foot in the door before Norm Augustine's panel could have the final word. For members of Congress who don't comprehand how much more work beyond Ares I-X is necessary before the real Ares I is ready, the visual of Ares I-X lifting off is evidence that the program is on track. Indeed, mebers of Congress are already spinning the Augustine Report as evidence that Ares is being well-executed, even though the committee largely ignored that question (and largely endorsed the idea of commercial spacecraft for low earth orbit missions, with Ares V Lite for deep space exploration.) Somewhere, Mike Griffin is smiling with glee. Not just because Ares I-X succeeded, but because the political winds growing across the Potomac will keep his Shaft Rocket airborne for the forseeable future.

When I think of Ares I-X, I start to think of the original Block I Saturn I rockets. (This is as flattering to Ares I-X as it is insulting to the Saturn I.) The four Block I flights flew with no fins, a dummy upper stage, a shortened first stage and less powerful first stage engines than the later Block II Saturn I and Saturn IB. It would be possible to look at the original Saturn I's and say they contributed nothing to the final man-rated Saturn IB. But that misses the point entirely. After the successes of the first Saturn I's, it was fairly easy to tweak the H-1 engines and stretch the propellant tanks. Even the redesign of the tail fairing wasn't the biggest challenge in the Saturn I evolution. Block I retired the risk on the first stage; Block II tackled the challenge of the new liquid hydrogen upper stage. Saturn IB went a step further by testing the new upper stage engine that would also take men to the moon. But Ares I-X didn't accomplish any major risk reduction, since the only hardware commonality is the SRB case segment design.

The Ares I-X test doesn't tell us much about the ultimate success of the Ares I program. But because the test did succeed, we know that the riddle and challenge of Ares will carry on.