NASA successfully launched a powerful emergency escape system for its Orion crew capsule May 6, even as the agency prepares to restructure Orion for a role that does not involve launching astronauts into orbit.
Called Pad Abort-1, the $220 million 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 at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
The Launch Abort System propelled a dummy Orion crew module to some 1,828 meters in altitude on an arcing trajectory above the desert landscape. The entire test lasted just 97 seconds.
After a sequence of events including mid-air reorientation and parachute deployments, the capsule landed about 2,108 meters away from its launch site. NASA officials said afterwards that they were pleased that the capsule came down for a softer landing than anticipated.
The launch abort system is designed to activate within milliseconds in the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during initial ascent. This was the NASA’s first test of a system of this type in more than 40 years.
Orion is a key component of the Moon-bound Constellation program that has been marked for termination by U.S. President Barack Obama. Originally designed to transport astronauts to the international space station and eventually to the Moon, Orion is being relegated to the role of space station emergency crew lifeboat. In that capacity, the capsule would launch unmanned, meaning it would not need the Launch Abort System.
NASA officials noted that the test is part of the space agency’s ongoing mission to develop safer human spaceflight vehicles in general.