Abort Motor for 1st NASA Orion Capsule Arrives at Kennedy

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WASHINGTON — A large but inert launch-abort motor for NASA’s first Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Feb. 21, where it will be integrated with the capsule despite having no role in Orion’s debut flight.

“The main abort motor is what we’re talking about here,” Charles Precourt, vice president of ATK’s Space Launch Systems division, told SpaceNews Feb. 20.

The motor, designed to produce 2,224 kilonewtons of thrust, would whisk Orion and its crew to safety in the event that a problem occurred during launch.

ATK Space Launch Systems of Magna, Utah, the largest U.S. manufacturer of solid-rocket boosters, is providing two of the three motors for Orion’s launch abort system. The other is made by Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif.

Orion’s 2014 flight debut, a stress test for the capsule’s heat shield and avionics systems, will see an unmanned version of the capsule launched by a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket, reaching a maximum altitude of about 5,800 kilometers. The capsule will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere after two orbits.

The main launch-abort motor will not be fired during the test, for which NASA is paying Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver $375 million. The entire launch-abort system will be jettisoned — by the Aerojet-built motor — shortly after the capsule breaches Earth’s atmosphere, Precourt said.

For Orion’s first two spaceflights, both unmanned, “the two motors we do at ATK will be inert, if you will,” said Precourt, a former astronaut who joined ATK in 2005. “They don’t need to function without a crew. We don’t plan an abort and we don’t need to fire to test the functionality of an abort.”

The main launch-abort motor will be tested prior to the first crewed Orion mission, currently slated for 2021.

ATK is a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin the launch abort system and has about 15 employees working on the effort. Precourt would not disclose the value of ATK’s subcontract.

Lockheed Martin won the $6.2 billion Orion prime contract in 2006. The capsule is being developed in parallel with the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), its intended carrier rocket for missions beyond Earth orbit. Orion and SLS were mandated by Congress following U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2010 cancellation of NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program, which was developing similar hardware.

SLS will first launch Orion in 2017, sending an unmanned capsule on a seven-day mission to lunar space. In 2021, SLS will send a crewed Orion capsule to lunar space for a 10- to 14-day mission. The capsule’s launch abort system will carry live motors for the 2021 flight.

Between the first and second SLS launches, NASA will fully test the Orion abort system, whose main motor was last fired on a pad at the White Sands Missile Range, N.M., in 2010. This so-called Altitude Abort Test was originally scheduled for 2015 but was pushed out due to budget pressure. In the test, Orion will be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on a converted Peacekeeper missile stage prepared by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Va.

Orbital originally was Lockheed’s main subcontractor for the Orion abort system, but the company was taken off of the project in 2010.

“After the Constellation closed down, Lockheed came directly to us and part of the cost-savings initiatives were to take a look at assets that remained from Constellation work directly with us to enable them to minimize costs” for the 2014 Orion flight, Precourt said.

“Our contract with Lockheed has been specific to tasks like this,” Precourt added. “So we’re anticipating, as we get into Ascent Abort and then the first crewed launch that there will be follow-on contract tasks” from Lockheed.