NASA's New Rocket Escape System Questioned

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

But NASA says new supercomputer analyses will prove the AresI launchabort system would do its job, propelling the Orion crew module andastronauts safely away from a dangerous maelstrom of fire and debris during anemergency.

"We feel we have a very, very, very safe firststage. Very reliable," said Jeff Hanley, manager of NASA's ProjectConstellation, which is developing Ares rockets and Orion spacecraft in aneffort to replace retiring shuttles and to ultimately carry astronauts to themoon by 2020. "We think we have a very robust design for the abortenvironment."

The Ares I rocket is being designed to launch astronautsinside Apollo-likeOrion capsules into Earth's orbit.

The Air Force finding came as part of a "statement ofcapability" that gave the Ares I rocket a preliminary green light to flyfrom the Air Force Eastern Range, although additional reviews will continue foryears. The Air Force's range provides tracking and safety services for alllaunches 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 AirForce Base, to Hanley. A copy was obtained by FLORIDA TODAY.

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

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

The launch abort system is a towering pole outfitted withsmall rocket motors that, when fired, would lift an Orion capsule off the topof the exploding Ares I rocket. A parachute system would enable the astronautsto land safely.

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

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

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

Hanley stressed that the statistical probability of an AresI 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 launchfailure is 1 in 2,800. That's a significant improvement over the 1 in 200chance of losing a shuttle during launch and ascent to orbit.

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

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

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

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

Contact Halvorson at

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Aerospace Journalist

Todd Halvoron is a veteran aerospace journalist based in Titusville, Florida who covered NASA and the U.S. space program for 27 years with Florida Today. His coverage for Florida Today also appeared in USA Today, and 80 other newspapers across the United States. Todd earned a bachelor's degree in English literature, journalism and fiction from the University of Cincinnati and also served as Florida Today's Kennedy Space Center Bureau Chief during his tenure at Florida Today. Halvorson has been an independent aerospace journalist since 2013.