Though NASA's moon program is slated for cancellation by President Barack Obama's 2011 budget, the agency is carrying on developing moon vehicles for now, with an escape rocket motor for the agency?s planned Orion moon ship passing its second ground test.

NASA contractor Alliant Techsystems (ATK), which built the solid propellant-powered motor, conducted the test Thursday at its facility in Elkton, Md.

It was the second of two successful ground tests for the full-scale attitude control motor (ACM), which is designed to steer a launch abort system on the Orion crew exploration vehicle. The system is built to carry an astronaut crew safely away from a malfunctioning rocket in the case of an emergency during liftoff.

Orion is the crew capsule slated to fly atop the Ares I rocket NASA planned to carry humans to the space station and the moon under the agency?s Constellation program.

That program was nixed in the Obama administration's new plan for NASA, which aims to encourage private industry to take up the task of ferrying astronauts to low-Earth orbit. Congress has yet to approve that proposal, but in the meantime the Constellation program is carrying on under the fully-funded 2010 budget.

The ACM includes a solid propellant gas generator with eight valves equally spaced around a three-foot diameter circular motor. In combination, the valves can exert up to 7,000 pounds of steering force to the vehicle in any direction upon command from the crew module.

The first ACM test was performed on December 15, 2009.

These motor tests pave the way for an upcoming pad abort test for the launch abort system, scheduled for sometime this spring, to be conducted at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. That test will be the first Orion flight test.

"The success of this test, coupled with the success of the first test last December, demonstrates again that crew safety is an overriding priority in the design of the crew vehicles to be used in future human exploration missions," said Bart Olson, interim President, ATK Mission Systems. "We are now ready for the next major milestone, a flight demonstration."

ATK is also NASA?s main contractor for the twin solid rocket boosters used to launch the agency?s space shuttles into orbit. NASA currently plans to fly just four more shuttle missions this year to complete construction of the International Space Station before the three-orbiter fleet is retired in the fall.

ATK test fired its last shuttle solid rocket booster at its proving ground in Promontory, Utah, in late February.