NASA has finished construction of the first of its new Ares-I rocket intended to replace the retiring space shuttle fleet, and possibly return astronauts to the moon. The Ares I-X, NASA's first new rocket in more than 25 years, is scheduled for launch on 31 October.
Aimed as a demonstration flight, the launch is intended to validate Ares-1's capabilities to haul NASA's new astronaut-carrying Orion spacecraft into orbit.
The fully assembled test rocket stands a towering 327 feet (100 meters) high.
"More than three years of hard work with the NASA and contractor team has brought us to this historic moment," said Bob Ess, NASA's Ares I-X mission manager, in a statement. "This flight test is a critical step in continuing our design process for the Ares vehicle and the first flight for the Constellation program."
The Constellation programme is NASA's plan to retire its ageing three-shuttle fleet by 2010 or 2011 and replace it with a new system of Ares I rockets and Orion spacecraft by 2015. It was intended to form the core of NASA's plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. This plan is now in some jeopardy with budget constraints making it very likely that no manned mission to the moon is likely to take place.
A White House-appointed review committee has analysed that NASA's current exploration budget is nearly $30 billion short of financing any lunar missions. The committee is due to file a final report on its review of NASA's human spaceflight plans by 31 August and will present four differing options for the consideration of Barack Obama, the US president.
Only one of these four options includes the Ares-I rocket, which is a two-stage rocket made up of a solid-fuelled first stage and a larger, liquid-fuelled second stage.
Consideration of these options is not likely to affect the test flight of the ARES-1-X, said NASA officials.