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Valve problem halts booster test

Officials hope failure doesn't force delay in shuttle flight tonight

PROMONTORY, Box Elder County — The next era of U.S. manned space flight will have to wait a little longer.

A static test Thursday of the new Ares I booster that is to be the flagship of a new generation of astronauts heading to the moon in 2019 and eventually to Mars was stopped 20 seconds before ignition when a secondary valve on the rocket's power steering system shut down.

Why one of a series of valves that controls the flow of fuel to the hydraulics system that ensures the proper angle, or gimble, of the 154-foot booster shut down just seconds before take-off wasn't known immediately, engineers with Alliant Techsystems and NASA said at a news conference an hour after the test was scrubbed.

"We know what happened but that's all we know right now," Alex Priskos, Ares I project manager for NASA told reporters. "We've done a lot of homework to not be here, but here we are. This is why we do tests, and this is just part of the job."

A retest date has not been set, ATK spokeswoman Trina Patterson said Thursday evening. ATK administrators were hoping earlier in the day that the problem would be as minor as a blown fuse or loose wire, which would allow them to try again today. Patterson said because the root problem that caused the pump to go offline was more involved, a new test date would be scheduled as soon as possible.

"Our goal is of course to reschedule as soon as possible, but until we know exactly what the problem is we can't say when that will be," said Kent Rominger, vice present of test and research operations at ATK.

A faulty valve problem is a big problem, although there are a series of secondary or redundant valves built into the hydraulics of the massive, five-stage rocket. News of it cropping up at Thursday's Ares I test was immediately passed along to NASA space shuttle controllers in Florida. Because the Ares I booster launch mechanism is refurbished shuttle parts, a problem here is a potential problem in Florida for tonight's shuttle mission to the International Space Station. That mission has been postponed three times because of weather and once because of a valve problem on one of the external fuel tanks, not the valves controlling fuel to the nozzle, NASA and ATK engineers said Thursday.

The string of valves that stopped the test were pre-tested eight days ago, and again Wednesday afternoon without incident, Pat Lampton, chief Ares engineer with NASA, said in explaining the sequence of events involved prior to the igniting of the rocket motor.

Nozzle hydraulics that operate independent of the booster itself are critical to controlling the 3.6 million pounds of thrust to achieve the most thrust possible as well as setting the initial arc of the spacecraft as it leaves Earth's orbit, he said.

"That has to be set in the final seconds to launch because there's no adjusting or stopping once the motor has fired," Lampton said.

The test is the first of five scheduled prior to actual crewed flights scheduled in 10 years.

The scrubbed test is a big disappointment, said Charlie Precourt, a former shuttle astronaut and now vice president and general manager of space launch systems at ATK. But it doesn't mitigate the effort of the ATK employees who have built the rocket.

"The good thing is this was a test and the better thing is the safeguards that are built into this system worked," he said.

e-mail: jthalman@desnews.com