The sun wasn’t the only spectacular sight seen rising over Florida’s ‘Space Coast’ this morning, as NASA just cleared a major milestone and hurdle on the road to returning humans to the moon with a successful in-flight abort test of their Orion crew capsule.
The highly anticipated test took off flawlessly and on time at 7:00am Eastern, at the opening of a 4-hour window. Riding atop a refurbished Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile solid rocket motor, manufactured by Northrop Grumman and procured by the U.S. Air Force, the 46,000 pound test article (Orion itself weighs 22,000 pounds) accelerated skyward and reached 31,000 feet in about 55 seconds, at which time the vehicle experienced the highest-stress point of the ascent and began its abort.
Passing 1,000mph Orion’s abort sequence was triggered, igniting the LAS’ abort motor which then fired with 400,000 pounds of thrust to pull the crew module away from the launch vehicle at 7Gs, gaining 2 miles of altitude in about 15 seconds before the attitude control motor fired to reorient the LAS to safely separate from the crew module. The LAS then separated from the crew module using its jettison motor, before the test article ejected its 12 data recorders and crashed into the ocean, closing out a successful and extremely important test to prove the spacecraft’s Launch Abort System (LAS) can safely pull a crew away from a failing / exploding skyscraper-sized SLS rocket.
In a real-life scenario the parachutes would of course deploy to land, but the test vehicle did not use any, nor did it have a reaction control system with thrusters to help orient the capsule for a parachute-assisted descent and splashdown, because the spacecraft’s parachute system has already been fully qualified through an extensive series of 17 developmental tests and 8 qualification tests completed at the end of 2018
The data recorders, which were quickly retrieved by boat, hold information collected from almost 900 sensors, which will provide insight into the abort system’s performance and give engineers a better understanding of the forces astronauts will encounter if they ever do go through an abort during ascent.
“Launching into space is one of the most difficult and dangerous parts of going to the Moon,” said Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “This test mimicked some of the most challenging conditions Orion will ever face should an emergency develop during the ascent phase of flight. Today, the team demonstrated our abort capabilities under these demanding conditions and put us one huge step closer to the first Artemis flight carrying people to the Moon.”
Such a need for an in-flight abort capability was proven most recently in October 2018 when the abort system was initiated on the Russian Soyuz MS-10’s climb to space with American astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, who were en route to the International Space Station when their capsule conducted an abort and saved their lives.
“The test flight performed perfectly, not to mention it was really exciting to watch,” said Mike Hawes, Orion program manager for Lockheed Martin Space. “Hopefully this will be the last time we see this launch abort system ever work, but this test brings confidence that if needed on future Orion missions, it will safely pull the crew module and astronauts away from a life threatening event during launch.”
Orion has been in development for well over a decade now as NASA’s deep-space crew capsule, at a cost of over $15 billion and originally envisioned for the now cancelled ARES/Constellation program. NASA is now focused on a permanent human presence on and around the moon, being also utilized as a staging area for Mars, and has tasked the Orion and SLS programs with the Artemis missions to land people on the moon by 2024.
The first mission, Artemis 1, is scheduled to fly as soon as 2020 / 2021, launching an uncrewed Orion atop the first SLS rocket and going to orbit the moon for several weeks to validate the entire system, before putting the first astronauts onboard for the Artemis-2 mission around 2022 / 2023.
And the Orion’s for those first two mission are each well into build too. At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians are currently preparing to attach the Orion crew and service modules before shipping it off for environmental testing at the agency’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, later this year.
The crew module for Artemis 2 meanwhle, the first Orion which will fly humans to the moon, is being outfitted with thousands of elements – from bolts and strain gauges to parachutes and propulsion lines.
Some more photos below: