Sunday, October 25, 2009

Discs, Flags Commemorate I-X Flight

A few hundred people who don't know whether they'll ever travel to worlds beyond Earth will have their vision for space exploration touch the sky during the Ares I-X flight test.

Homemade videos that were submitted to the NASA Web site and then burned onto three DVDs are being packed inside the first stage of the experimental rocket.

For NASA's Constellation Program, the flight test will be a suborbital flight to prove the first stage of the Ares I design works as planned.

For the video producers, it's a chance to join the first flight of a new NASA rocket. The Ares I-X is the first vehicle designed with astronauts in mind since the space shuttle's debut in April 1981.

Image above:A pair of technicians working inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida place three shoebox-sized packages into the Ares I-X before the rocket is rolled to the launch pad. Each bag was loaded with small American flags to mark the flight test. There is also one DVD containing homemade videos submitted to the NASA Web site in each of the bags. Photo credit: NASA

"It gives them a piece of history that they're going to be part of," said Derek Wang, the NASA outreach coordinator for the video project. "It's using the power of the social media and participatory process."

It's more than a chance to vicariously ride a rocket – the videos also are an opportunity for people to tell the space agency what kind of space exploration they'd like to see.

"The attitude has been really positive," Wang said. "We've had tapes from different countries, we have people who want us to explore more. They definitely want to go somewhere, to a destination."

That desire to leave Earth orbit is a perfect theme for the Ares rockets, said Jon Cowart, the Ares I-X deputy mission manager.

"This rocket in particular excites and inspires because it represents our first tangible step toward new exploration goals," he said. "With the Ares family of rockets (Ares I and Ares V), we will once again be capable of leaving the bounds of Earth orbit and venturing out."

Wang has been sifting through the videos and many of them are posted on agency Web site. All will still fly on the rocket, though.

NASA has flown digitized names on space probes, but Wang said this is the first time homemade videos have been launched.

Although the videos have been produced by outsiders, making a safe place for them is strictly the domain of professional engineers. Cowart said the analysis was not hard in this case, but it had to be thorough.

"I know you're thinking, intuitively, 'It's just a couple of DVDs,' " Cowart said, "but I assure you, objects smaller and lighter than DVDs have hampered missions before by falling in the wrong place at the wrong time."

A few thousand flags also will share the space with the DVDs. Working from designs that flew on STS-96, engineers made three bags, each about the size of a shoebox, to hold 3,500 flags.

Larry Clark, director of Engineering for ATK's Florida operations, and Jim Bolton of NASA came up with the idea of flying flags inside the forward skirt of a solid rocket booster on STS-96 as commemorative items.

The flags moved to the backs of their minds for the STS-96 launch because the focus was on a successful liftoff.

Image above: The boxes holding flags and DVDs are arranged and fastened inside the fifth-stage simulator on the Ares I-X rocket. The boxes are in the first stage of the Ares I-X vehicle and are expected to be recovered intact. Image credit: NASA

"Once the boosters separated and came back down, we were like, "Yay! The flags survived!'" Clark said.

With that success in their minds, Clark and Bolton proposed it again for the Ares I-X mission, this time arranging them to fly in the fifth-segment simulator on the top of the first stage.

"Everyone liked the idea and so we went ahead with it," Clark said.

Technicians plan to recover the first stage of the Ares I-X, which will parachute down to the ocean just like the solid rocket boosters after a shuttle launch. The video discs and flags will be housed in roughly the same area as the parachutes.

The top part of the test rocket, which includes weight simulators for the upper stage and Orion spacecraft, is not scheduled to be recovered after it falls into the Atlantic Ocean.

Once the first stage is brought back to land, the mementoes will be pulled out of the rocket stage and mounted in award plaques to go on display, though exactly where hasn't been established yet.

Wang said plans are in the works to give people opportunities to take part in future missions in similar ways.

Steve Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center

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