With two minutes of smoke and thunder followed by a giant splash Tuesday morning, Cleveland's NASA Glenn Research Center will officially join the space flight club.
If the launch schedule holds and the historic test flight of Ares I-X goes off at 8 a.m. as planned -- a final review later today will determine that -- a tall, slender rocket will hurtle 25 miles into the Florida sky.
Two minutes in, the mockup upper stage that more than 200 Glenn engineers, technicians and managers have spent the last 40 months designing and building will separate from the spent booster that carried it aloft.
Moving at almost five times the speed of sound, it will climb four more miles on momentum, then plunge toward the Atlantic Ocean. On impact, the 430,000-pound rocket segment will sink like a rock.
"It'll be a fish reef," said Vince Bilardo, who managed the Glenn Center's intensive effort to build the $53 million upper stage simulator. "And quite frankly, if it's in the ocean and everything else has gone well, we'll be cheering."
The test flight is a landmark for Cleveland's NASA center and a pivotal moment for the space agency, which is embarking on the Constellation program to explore the moon and Mars.
The Glenn-built simulated upper stage, which matches the size and silhouette of the real thing but lacks fuel tanks and an engine, will provide crucial data on how the new Ares design performs in its first flight.
Its 11 steel segments, dubbed "tuna cans" because of their round shape and their final ocean-bottom destination, make up one-third of the 27-story rocket - the most significant piece of hardware the Cleveland center has yet produced.
Although Glenn's propulsion expertise aided the Apollo program, and its power systems and science experiment racks have flown on the International Space Station, the center hasn't been known for building rockets and spacecraft components like its sister NASA institutions in Alabama, Florida and Texas.
The Ares I-X upper stage "gets us back in the space flight game," said Randy Humphries, Glenn's deputy director of space flight systems, who arrived in 2007 from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.. "Now we've got a proven team . . . and it's noted by the other space flight centers as well as the leadership in NASA."
That leadership, along with Glenn personnel who will take part in next week's launch, probably will be holding their breath as Ares I-X's first-stage booster rumbles to life. The rocket, which is meant to replace the space shuttle and ferry astronauts to the International Space Station and, later, back to the moon, is NASA's first new design in 30 years.