Last week NASA successfully tested the launch pad abort system designed for the Orion crew spacecraft. The system is meant to allow the crew to escape should a catastrophe occur during the first few seconds of flight. Read Technology Review’s article on how it works. Here is an exert from the article:
The new escape system would separate the crew module from the launch rocket in a fraction of a second with a small, controlled explosion. Almost simultaneously, a solid rocket motor would fire, providing a million pounds of thrust to accelerate the module from 0 to 600 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds, pulling the astronauts to a safe distance before the module’s parachutes deploy.
Last week’s test, shown in the video below, took place at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. It was the first fully-integrated test for the system. The data gathered will be important for the design and development of future systems.
NASA originally intended to send the Orion crew exploration vehicle and the escape system into space aboard the Ares rockets by 2015 as part of its Constellation Program. Under President Obama’s new budget proposal, which calls for the cancellation of the Constellation Program, Orion will instead be used as an emergency crew spacecraft on the International Space Station.
I recently spoke with Antonio Elias, executive vice president and general manager of Advanced Programs at Orbital Sciences Corporation, a VA-based commercial space company providing design and development support of the system. He said that a launch abort system is vital unless we completely abandon human spaceflight, and it is very likely that Orbital will continue to build NASA’s future escape systems.