October 31, 2009

2 Chutes Malfunctioned During Ares I-X Test Flight

Two of three parachutes malfunctioned during a test flight of a prototype moon rocket earlier this week, NASA reported on Friday.

The problem caused major damage to the Ares I-X booster, which became dented while slamming into the Atlantic Ocean harder than expected during its first test launch.

The agency successfully launched its experimental Ares I-X rocket from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday. The 327-foot rocket became the first new vehicle to launch from the complex since the first shuttle launch in 1981.

Bob Ess, the mission manager, said the damage to the Ares I-X booster is immaterial because it was not intended to fly again. Furthermore, the problem does not detract from the overall success of Wednesday's flight, he said.

"Don't play this too much," Ess told reporters.

"The parachute thing was like 'Hey, look at that.' We're not worried about that. There's no investigation. There's no unusual thing we're doing. We're just going through our usual post (flight) tests," he said.

All three parachutes on the first-stage booster opened after the two-minute flight, although one rapidly deflated while another only partially deployed.  This meant the booster was essentially brought down by the equivalent of 1 1/2 parachutes.

The recovered booster arrived back at port Friday, but engineers won't know for sure what caused the malfunction until parts are inspected early next week.

Ess said the parachutes themselves might be to blame for the failure.

Early indications are that the rocket was "rock solid" during liftoff, he said, with no troublesome shaking from the thrust.  Some were concerned last year that the launch vibrations could be excessive.

A definitive conclusion will come once engineers retrieve the data recorder and conduct weeks of analysis, Ess said.

NASA's $445 million flight test was the initial step in the agency's campaign to return astronauts to the moon.   However, the White House may change course and abandon the Ares I in favor of other rockets and destinations.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's space operations chief, told the Associated Press that the Ares I-X parachute will not impact the November 16 launch of Atlantis to the International Space Station.


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