NASA is launching a skyscraper-sized rocket into space next week. It won’t be of much use to science, but it’ll be a helluva sight.
They said it in the 1960s when Saturn V and the Apollo programme put a man on the moon – imagine those billions in development spend went into something really useful, like social welfare, or houses for the homeless. They were wrong, of course, and some of them knew it at the time. Social welfare initiatives almost never change the long-term material conditions of the poor, no matter how much cash is in the pot. Besides, what’s poverty alleviation when compared to fulfilling man’s destiny and exploring the heavens?
You can’t help but wonder, though, about the point of the US$360-million NASA is spending on a test flight of the Ares 1-X rocket next Tuesday. It’s the first time in almost thirty years that the organisation is launching a rocket into space from the Florida coast, and it’s value to the Orion programme – mooted as the space shuttle’s successor – is apparently negligible.
The unmanned test rocket differs from the Ares 1, which should eventually take Orion astronauts into orbit and possibly back to the moon, in a few important respects. Most glaring is perhaps that the upper stage of the 100-metre-tall Ares 1-X is a mock-up, a hollow tube with metal plates simulating the weight of the real thing.
Given that a US presidential panel has recently slated the Ares/Orion project as unlikely to deliver a space shuttle replacement on schedule or within budget, many experts are shouting for the funds to be channeled into alternatives. Still, at around the size of a 35-storey building, the Ares 1-X liftoff ought to make for decent television.