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Ares I: What's the point?

Waste of cash, says spaceflight review chairman

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The chairman of the committee tasked by president Barack Obama with reviewing the future of the US's human spaceflight programme has questioned the value of NASA's Ares I rocket, just days before its first test flight.

The committee yesterday released its final report (pdf), offering pretty much the same options it suggested in its preliminary findings, which concluded that without a substantial injection of extra cash, even the planned return to the Moon was pretty well a non-starter.

NASA is keen to press ahead with its Constellation programme, with the Ares I theoretically supplying the International Space Station following the planned retirement of the space shuttle fleet.

However, as New Scientist reports, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine yesterday told reporters: "The issue that comes up under Ares I is whether the programme is useful."

Indeed, it's unlikely that under the current budget Ares I will be operational until after the slated deorbit of the ISS, pencilled for 2016.

Instead, Augustine suggested NASA should press ahead with commercial alternatives to supply the ISS, such as SpaceX's Falcon 9. He said: "We think NASA would be better served to spend its money and its ability, which is immense, focusing on going beyond low-Earth orbit rather than running a trucking service to low-Earth orbit."

Whether the White House will agree with Augustine and his colleagues remains to be seen, and it's a matter of speculation whether "beyond low-Earth orbit" will eventually mean a return to the Moon's surface or, as many insist, heading straight for Mars.

The Ares I-X, meanwhile, is sitting on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Centre ahead of a slated 27 October test launch. NASA is doubtless hoping it doesn't do its critics a favour on the day by shaking itself to pieces on the pad, as some engineers have suggested it might. ®

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