SPECTACULAR ROCKET FLAMES (and a dose of political reality)

Seth Jarvis

DISCLAIMER: ATK Space Systems is a financial supporter of Clark Planetarium. They sponsor our IMAX Theatre through annual cash and in-kind donations. That said, I would have written this post even if ATK Space Systems never gave the planetarium a dime.


Thursday’s static test firing of the Ares solid fuel rocket booster at ATK’s test facility in northern Utah was spectacular!

Don’t believe me?  Check this out:


Here it is again, close-up. (Yes, I’m a nerd – I took two cameras.)


That’s what six million horsepower looks like.

[geekmode = ON]

1,381,700 pounds of solid fuel was burned in just 122 seconds – that’s a rate of more than five and a half TONS of fuel burned – PER SECOND for over two minutes.

122 seconds of 3.6 million pounds of rocket thrust.  It was amazing.

122 seconds of 3.6 million pounds of rocket thrust. It was amazing.

The boosters that launch the Space Shuttle contain four segments of solid rocket fuel stacked together in a single case.  The Ares booster uses five segments.  Additionally, it uses a new formulation of the solid propellant, a new geometry within the motor case to optimize the thrust and a new, larger nozzle throat.  These improvements, plus others not mentioned because honestly I probably wouldn’t understand them, make this Ares booster 24% more powerful than the solid fuel rocket boosters that help launch the Space Shuttle.

[geekmode  = OFF]

Numbers shmumbers.

When the countdown reached “T-minus 10 seconds…” and everyone’s attention was riveted on that long white tube a little over a mile away, I’m here to tell you that no one, not even icewater-for-blood rocket engineers, worried about numbers. This was purely an emotional moment.

The column of flame coming out of that thing was as bright as the Sun.  For five seconds you saw it but did not hear it because the sound waves hadn’t reached us yet.  Then… BOOM! The roar was amazing and your chest shakes from the roar of the engine.  You can feel the power of this thing rattling through your bones.

Congratulations, ATK!

At the same time I’m writing this, a summary of the Augustine Commission Report, which reviews the options available for the future of America’s human space flight efforts, is being widely discussed.

It’s worth keeping in mind as you read it that as a percentage of the total US federal budget NASA’s funding has never been smaller, and currently is about one tenth what it was during the Apollo years.  As you consider the dollar amounts being discussed it’s helpful to put those numbers in the context of other areas of federal spending.

Also, as you think about money being spent on “going to the moon” keep in mind that no one is proposing to package pallets of hundred dollar bills and hurl them into space.  What’s really happening, of course, is that thousands of scientists, engineers, truck drivers, accountants, electricians, secretaries, etc. are working together to put Americans back on the moon.  And this time it wouldn’t be for a quickie two or three day visit, but for much longer, earnest scientific explorations and eventually the construction of permanent lunar outposts.

While the Ares booster is a magnificent and wonder-inspiring technological marvel, it is also very much in the spotlight of political scrutiny.  Do we as a nation fund it, or not?

Who gets to make the decisions regarding the future of human spaceflight for the U.S.?  Can we as members of the general public make proper sense of the technical issues being discussed so that we ourselves can make informed decisions as taxpaying voters?  This requires what’s called “scientific literacy,” and more and more critical public policy decisions depend on a scientifically literate public and scientifically literate elected representatives.

That’s what we at Clark Planetarium are here to encourage – public awareness of and appreciation for the science in our daily lives.

Please pay attention to this kind of thing.  It’s important to you in more ways than you can imagine.

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