NASA Launches Astronaut Escape Ship in Test
The Max Launch Abort System, an astronaut escape ship alternative to NASA's tower-based choice on the Orion vehicles, launched at 6:26 a.m. EDT on July 8, 2009 from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

An unmanned prototype for a new astronaut escape pod launched high above the Virginia coast early Wednesday during a NASA test flight.

The bullet-shaped escape ship blasted off at 6:26 a.m. EDT (1026 GMT) today from a seaside pad at Wallops Island, Va., during the successful test. The vehicle is an alternative design to one planned to carry astronauts to safety during launch emergencies for NASA?s new Orion spacecraft. Orion capsules will replace the agency's aging space shuttle fleet and are slated to make their first operational flight by 2015.

?Everything, preliminarily, looks like it was a good test,? said Keith Koehler, a spokesman for NASA?s Wallops Flight Facility. ?To say the team is very excited about the launch this morning is an understatement.?

The prototype escape ship is not meant to replace the tower-based abort system selected for the Orion spacecraft. But data gleaned from today?s test flight may help shape that accepted Orion system, which is slated to make its first launch abort test later this year.

?There is data that they?ll be sharing,? Koehler told SPACE.com.

Called the Max Launch Abort System, or MLAS, the alternative design launched primarily as a technology demonstrator and to help the independent NASA Engineering and Safety Center at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., gain experience in flight tests, NASA officials have said.

During Wednesday?s test, the MLAS vehicle rose high above the Virginia coast, jettisoned its engine ring and then deployed parachutes from its bullet-shaped shell as it began to fall back toward Earth. The shell popped free from a full-size mock up of an Orion crew capsule a short time later, which then deployed its own parachutes and splashed down in the shallow waters of the Atlantic Ocean near the Wallops Island coast.

?The flight was a little less than a minute,? Koehler said.

Mission planners expected the MLAS prototype to launch as high as a mile (1.6 km) into the sky during the test, which had been delayed since late June due to weather and final work required on the vehicle. The test had an estimated cost of about $30 million, NASA officials have said.

Spaceship escape

NASA?s Orion spacecraft will use a proven abort system that uses a rocket engine mounted to tower atop the vehicle?s cone-shaped crew capsule to rip the vehicle free of its Ares I rocket during a launch emergency and carry astronauts to safety. The first operational Orion flights are slated to begin no earlier than 2015 under NASA?s plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.

Similar escape systems were used during NASA?s Apollo and Mercury programs during the 1960s and 1970s, though the two-man Gemini vehicles that flew in between featured ejection seats instead of an abort tower. Ejection seats were also aboard the first test flights for NASA?s space shuttle fleet, but were later removed.

A recent U.S. Air Force study has questioned whether the current Orion Launch Abort System is powerful enough to safely propel astronauts away from a launch emergency. But NASA officials have said that supercomputer analyses will show that their chosen launch abort system will work.

Unlike the Orion system, which places a single escape motor in a top-mounted tower, the MLAS system uses four rocket engines distributed around a booster ring at the base of the snub-nosed capsule. The flight test vehicle launched today resembled a white bullet with stubby wings attached.

It stood 33 feet (10 meters) tall and weighed about 45,000 pounds (20,411 kg). NASA named the Max Launch Abort System after Maxime ?Max? Faget, a pioneering Mercury-era engineer who holds the patent for the rocket escape tower concept.

Koehler said MLAS engineers have begun analyzing the data collected during today?s launch test. A recovery team is expected to retrieve the test vehicle from the shallow Atlantic waters off Virginia?s coast on Thursday, he added.