PROMONTORY -- Eight students from Utah State University were standing around ATK's latest solid rocket booster motor Thursday morning, waiting for its test and comparing it to the smaller rocket they launched earlier this year.
Thursday's test by ATK was the third, and possibly last, of a new generation of solid-fuel motors that have launched space shuttles into space for more than 30 years.
ATK Space Systems has added a fifth motor segment to the shuttle's four-segment motor and made other improvements.
The test went off without a hitch at 2:05 p.m.
At the count of "zero," a blaze of white-hot, 5,000-degree flame shot out of the horizontally mounted motor, sending a plume of smoke and dust into the sky.
Four seconds after the motor was lighted, a low rumble and roar of sound smacked viewers more than a mile away. The plume soared as the burn continued for more than a minute, generating more than 3.5 million pounds of thrust.
Charlie Precourt, ATK vice president and general manager of Space Launch Systems, said after the test that it was "extremely successful. We have quick-look data that we review, and the thrust time tracing was essentially perfect," meaning the motor burned exactly as it was designed to do.
More than 700 monitors were taking readings during the burn, and Precourt said data still has to be analyzed.
Before the test, Stephen Whitmore, a Utah State University professor of aerospace engineering, said his students may be witnesses to the current space industry's last attempts at the old way of doing things.
His students, he said, are doing what's new, and NASA gave them $5,000 at Thursday's test for succeeding at doing it.
Whitmore's students used an innovative solid-fuel motor to launch a rocket they built precisely one mile up, no more and no less. It was that precision, using new types of fuels and rocket design, that future space missions will need, he said.
"I think you're going to see that the commercial guys are going to take off," he said, referring to privately funded ventures that are building space vehicles.
"Look at Falcon 9 (a privately launched space capsule by SpaceX). There's nothing that could have stopped them from launching a manned space vehicle."
The process would go even faster, he said, "if Congress would stay out of it and stop boondoggling NASA's budget to protect their districts."
He was referring to provisions in NASA's budget put in by Congress, including Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, in whose district ATK Space Systems resides, that all but require NASA's next generation of heavy lift launch vehicles to be what ATK already builds.
Thursday's test was of that system.
NASA and ATK employees viewing the test were more optimistic than Whitmore, but also realistic about the future.
Chris Singer, director of engineering at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said NASA was ready to use the rocket "if Congress and the administration decide what they want."
While that means political -- not engineering -- reasons will decide Singer's future and that of his agency, he said that's the way life is and he has to be optimistic.
"This place (the United States) was founded on the explorer's heart, and we want to follow that heart," he said. "Exploration is the future, and we just want to see where that goes, and you have to be optimistic."
Precourt said this third test of the new motor should just about complete efforts to show that it is what NASA wants.
He said one of the biggest tests is to have the propellant in the motor at 90 degrees. Previous tests have had the propellant at 30 degrees and at daytime ambient temperature to test how well the motor behaves at various launch temperatures.
Even though NASA and the White House have not decided what the next generation of heavy lift NASA vehicles will look like, let alone what future missions will be, Precourt said ATK's design meets Congress' requirements.
"There's still no guarantee for the long haul," he said, "but this is what they want, and they are indicating they will continue to use this booster" until a new design is selected.
Cadet Mike Seis, an aerospace engineering student at the U.S. Air Force Academy, was impressed with the test because it exemplifies why he and others from the school attending Thursday's test want to get into engineering.
Could this be the last such motor?
"I hope not," he said. "Space exploration is the key to our understanding of the universe."
C.J. Sturckow, a four-time shuttle and International Space Station astronaut who was at the test site to observe, said the current doubt and debate over the future of NASA is just part of the process.
"We've been focused on the remainder of the shuttle program, and there's going to be some discussion on where we're heading next," he said.
Whitmore, who worked as a NASA engineer for 25 years, said he sees the future of space travel as hybrid rocket motors that use safe, stable fuels.
The fuels in both current solid and liquid rocket motors are highly flammable and unstable, he said, requiring massive safety work, "which is a lot of the cost."
Rockets that use a stable solid with a stable liquid oxidizer will be much safer, which is what will be needed for civilian uses.
USU has development contracts on that sort of motor now, he said. "The only disadvantage is that they don't have 40 years of development behind them."
"The point is, if you're going to take these rockets off the military bases and operate them in a civilian environment, that makes a huge difference in how you operate," he said.
Jamie Wilson, a master's student in aerospace engineering at USU, said he and Whitmore's other students designed the solid motor to almost reach a mile, then added carbon dioxide thrusters controlled by altitude sensors in the rocket's on-board computer to push it the extra distance.
They launched their rocket April 17 in Huntsville. USU was one of 40 schools competing for the prize.