NASA Tests Escape System for Spacecraft Cut in Budget

NASA has tested a new way for astronauts to escape during an emergency on the launch pad or liftoff, even though the spacecraft intended to use the system may never carry humans into orbit.

Images from NASA Television showed the Orion crew capsule settling onto the New Mexico desert early today about 97 seconds after rockets blasted it away from a launch pad at White Sands Missile Range. The launch-abort system was designed by Orbital Sciences Corp. for Orion, which was to take astronauts back to the moon. President Barack Obama scrapped the lunar effort in a budget issued in February.

The test reflects efforts to keep spacecraft development alive while the administration spars with Congress on the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Democratic and Republican lawmakers want the U.S. to retain an ability to go to and from the International Space Station once the space shuttle program ends.

“We certainly think it’s very applicable to future space flight in terms of developing this technology,” said Don Reed, manager of the Orion Flight Test Office at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, in an interview.

Last month, Obama responded to congressional opposition by offering to revive Orion in a limited version. The craft would serve only as an emergency ferry from the space station and reduce U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz vessels.

The revised Orion wouldn’t need the system tested today, which is designed to pull the capsule away from the launch pad within milliseconds in case of an accident, allowing the astronauts inside to get to safety.

Three Rockets

The system uses three rocket engines to carry astronauts in their capsule away from the launch pad: an abort motor designed by Alliant Techsystems Inc. to pull the crew module away from the pad; an attitude-control motor also designed by Alliant to reorient the capsule; and a jettison motor from GenCorp Inc.’s Aerojet unit that separates the vessel from the system.

A series of parachutes are then deployed, allowing the capsule to land safely about a mile away from the launch site.

‘Like Clockwork’

“That went like clockwork from what I could see,” Jay Estes, deputy manager for the Orion Flight Test Office, said during live coverage on NASA Television.

Similar systems have been installed on previous spacecraft, such as the Apollo capsules, although they have been used only once -- in September 1983, when two Soviet Union cosmonauts escaped a fire at the base of the rocket that was to carry their Soyuz capsule into orbit.

Systems to allow astronauts to exit the space shuttle while the orbiter is in a controlled glide were installed after Challenger exploded during liftoff in January 1986. Following Columbia’s destruction on its return to Earth in February 2003, NASA’s astronaut office recommended that the agency include abort systems in future spacecraft that provide crews with a 90 percent probability of surviving.

“It’s the first abort system the U.S. has developed since Apollo, but it’s much more advanced, it has more capability, it has advanced technologies that will be of value to us in the future,” said Doug Cooke, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems, in a press conference after today’s test.

Obama’s Plan

Obama’s plan relies on companies to develop the next generation of spacecraft to carry humans into orbit, and Reed said whatever vessels private industry builds will need escape systems to prevent accidents like the two space shuttle disasters, which killed 14 astronauts.

“It may never fly, but any spacecraft we develop, whether it’s a commercial vehicle or a NASA spacecraft, will have to have that capability,” former shuttle astronaut Thomas Jones said in an interview. “It’s surprising it’s taken this long. It’s been 25 years since the Challenger accident and we still don’t have a very good way for crews to get out of a ship in case of an emergency.”

It’s not clear what role the abort system will play in NASA’s future. Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences was selected in September 2006 by Lockheed Martin Corp., NASA’s primary Orion contractor, to design and build the system under a five-year subcontract valued at about $250 million.

Change in Direction

“With the administration’s change in direction of the Orion program, it is unlikely that a launch-abort system will be required,” James R. Thompson, Orbital’s vice chairman and chief operating officer, said in an April 20 conference call. “The technology and work accomplished to date by Orbital should have application in replacement in the NASA program as new opportunities emerge.”

Lockheed Martin is slowing work on the escape system that isn’t related to the test, and will proceed with development through a design review and delivery of a replica, said Marion LaNasa, a company spokesman.

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