CAPE CANAVERAL -- NASA's Orion spaceship and the astronauts onboard might not survive an explosive launch failure of the agency's proposed Ares I moon rocket, analyses by Air Force safety experts show.

But NASA says new supercomputer analyses will prove the Ares I launch abort system would do its job, propelling the Orion crew module and astronauts safely away from a dangerous maelstrom of fire and debris during an emergency.

"We feel we have a very, very, very safe first stage. Very reliable," said Jeff Hanley, manager of NASA's Project Constellation, which is developing Ares rockets and Orion spacecraft in an effort to replace retiring shuttles and to ultimately carry astronauts to the moon by 2020. "We think we have a very robust design for the abort environment."

The Ares I rocket is being designed to launch astronauts inside Apollo-like Orion capsules into Earth's orbit.

The Air Force finding came as part of a "statement of capability" that gave the Ares I rocket a preliminary green light to fly from the Air Force Eastern Range, although additional reviews will continue for years. The Air Force's range provides tracking and safety services for all launches from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The finding was detailed in a May 20 memo from Brig. Gen. Edward Bolton, commander of the 45th Space Wing headquartered at Patrick Air Force Base, to Hanley. A copy was obtained by FLORIDA TODAY.

"Recent Air Force studies have called into question the survivability of the crew module in the fratricide environment from a destructing first-stage solid rocket booster," the memo said.

The statement means that if the first stage blew up in flight, it could blast explosive solid rocket debris into the Orion crew module before its launch abort system could propel it to safety.

The launch abort system is a towering pole outfitted with small rocket motors that, when fired, would lift an Orion capsule off the top of the exploding Ares I rocket. A parachute system would enable the astronauts to land safely.

The Ares I rocket and all others launched from the Eastern Range are equipped with flight-termination systems.

The system is made up of pyrotechnic devices that Air Force range safety personnel on the ground can use to deliberately destroy errant rockets if towns or communities along Florida's Space Coast were threatened.

The Air Force memo questions whether Ares' launch abort system would provide "sufficient separation from a destruction first stage . . . to avoid fratricide to the crew module." That means debris would endanger the ship.

Hanley stressed that the statistical probability of an Ares I first-stage failure is remote. He pinpointed it at 1 in 3,000 to 1 in 3,500.

The overall probability of a catastrophic Ares I launch failure is 1 in 2,800. That's a significant improvement over the 1 in 200 chance of losing a shuttle during launch and ascent to orbit.

Since the shuttle fleet returned to flight after the Challenger accident, 202 redesigned solid rocket motors have successfully launched with the shuttle. The booster is the basis for the Ares I rocket.

The Air Force memo also questioned whether the range could support plans to launch the Ares V and Ares I within 90 minutes, which is the plan outlined in what NASA calls its "reference mission" for moon flights.

NASA intends to loft an Earth-departure stage and Altair lunar module on the much more powerful Ares V first. The crew would follow on an Ares I very soon after. The Orion spacecraft would hook up with the other vehicles in Earth's orbit and head out on trips to the moon.

Hanley noted that NASA launched similar dual missions from Cape Canaveral during the Gemini program during the 1960s.

Contact Halvorson at thalvorson@floridatoday.com.

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