NASA Test Launches Rocket Escape System for Astronauts
NASA's Orion Launch Abort System launched on its first test flight, Pad Abort 1, on May 6, 2010 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Here, the escape system (left) has reoriented the Orion capsule mockup and is poised to release it after a successful launch abort.
Credit: TV

This story was updated at 12:32 p.m. ET.

WHITE SANDS, New Mexico ? NASA launched a powerful emergency escape system for its new Orion spacecraft on a successful test flight Thursday, even as plans for the crew capsule are still being restructured.

Called Pad Abort-1, the $220 million Orion escape system test showcased the system that could be used to rescue a crew and its spacecraft in case of emergencies at the launch pad. The test was conducted here at the U.S. Army?s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Liftoff occurred on time at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT).

"Beautiful flight!" a test flight controller said after liftoff. This graphic shows how the escape system would work.

Roaring off into New Mexico skies, the Launch Abort System propelled a boilerplate Orion crew module to some 6,000 feet (1,828 meters) altitude on an arcing trajectory above the desert landscape. The entire test lasted just 97 seconds.

After a rapid-fire sequence of events, including mid-air reorientation, drogue and main parachute deployments, the capsule landed about 6,919 feet (2,108 meters) ? a bit farther than expected.

"Wow, that went like clockwork from what I can see," said Jay Estes, NASA's deputy manager of the Orion project office. "That's an amazing test."

The launch abort system is designed to activate within milliseconds in the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during initial ascent.

NASA officials reveled in the launch escape system's successful test, which was the first of its kind in more than 40 years.

"It's the first abort system the U.S. has developed since Apollo," said Doug Cooke, NASA's associate administrator for exploration systems, after the test. "It was a tremendous success."

Safer space vehicles

NASA officials noted that, although Orion is a component of the agency?s Constellation program that?s now under both White House and Congressional scrutiny, today?s test is part of the space agency?s ongoing mission to develop safer space vehicles for all human spaceflight applications.  

?It?s nice to know it?s there. You never really want to use it, but having it there and knowing you have an out is a big plus," NASA astronaut Scott Altman told after watching the successful test launch. "It?s the abort system that adds that extra level of safety that?s going to get us to the place we want to be for ascent abort safety."

President Barack Obama said in an April 15 speech at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center that he favors use of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle in a stripped-down version to serve as an astronaut lifeboat attached to the International Space Station.

Today?s Pad Abort-1 test made use of three solid propellant rocket motors: an abort motor, an attitude control motor, and a jettison motor:

  • The primary motor is the abort motor, which is used to propel the crew module away from the pad.
  • The attitude control motor steers the vehicle to actively maintain stability and reorient it as needed.
  • The jettison motor pulls the whole launch abort system away from the crew module and clears the way for parachute deployment and landing.

In addition to the motor stack, the launch abort system also included a fairing assembly that covered the boilerplate Orion crew vehicle and its nose cone.

The test flight was initiated by command from a specially built mobile operations facility ? a large trailer acting as mission control. That command ignited both the Launch Abort System?s abort and attitude control motors, pulling the crew module in an upward trajectory from the pad to a roughly mile-high altitude.

Government, industry team

An array of NASA centers and contractors were involved in today?s Pad Abort-1 test.

The test module and launch abort system stack were built at NASA?s Langley Research Center in Virginia. Systems installation and integration took place at NASA?s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

NASA?s Langley leads the development of the LAS in partnership with the space agency?s Marshall Space Flight Center. Dryden is conducting the launch abort flight test effort for the Orion Project Office at the Johnson Space Center, Houston.

On the industrial side of the test, Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor to NASA for the Orion crew exploration vehicle. Orbital Sciences Corporation is responsible for the design, development, test and integration of the Launch Abort System for Lockheed Martin.

?I know my guys are flying high,? said former astronaut Frank Culbertson, now Senior Vice President and Deputy General Manager of Orbital Sciences Corporation?s Advanced Programs Group.

Culbertson told that today?s test was important for a number of reasons.

?You needed to complete this test to make sure you really did understand what you were doing?because we are going to continue to fly people in space," he said. "Whether it?s a commercially provided vehicle, or a government vehicle?you?re going to need a launch abort system to insure their safety.?

Alliant Techsystems, or ATK, developed the attitude control motor, which includes eight thrusters producing up to 7,000 pounds of thrust. ATK also developed the abort motor to pull the capsule away from the launch pad.

Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif., developed the jettison motor, which is the only motor of the three that would be used in all flight cases to pull the escape tower from the crew module.

While euphoria, slaps on the back, and thumb's up signs were part of the visible scene here, where the Orion program is headed remains foggy.

?Right now we?re in the process of trying to define what the program going forward is going to be and what the sequence will be,? said Douglas Cosens, Aerojet's Orion project executive. ?We don?t know exactly what the next steps are as the Administration and Congress figure out the next steps for human spaceflight and for the Orion program. But certainly what took place here today is a demonstration of an innovative and new technology. We have lots of hope for the future of this system.?

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for since 1999.