PROMONTORY, Box Elder County — The new era of manned space exploration officially began here Thursday with the successful five-second firing of the main motor for NASA's new launch abort system.
The test, which marks the first such test since the Apollo program tested its launch escape system in the 1960s, was the culmination envisioned when work on the project began three years ago, much of it conducted at Alliant Techsystems' Promontory facility.
"It was a short test but nothing short of what we were hoping for," NASA's deputy project chief Stephen Gaddis told the Deseret News a few moments after the test. "This is a milestone and a historic moment in this country's space exploration program, not only just because it signals a new era but because we have put all this work into a system we hope that we never have to use."
Employing it would mean something has gone terribly awry with a launch, he said. "But this is the safest system we've ever developed and most reliable, but it's important that the astronauts are protected just in case."
This milestone brings the Constellation Program one step closer to completion of the Orion vehicle that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station in 2015 and return humans to the moon by 2020, said Mark Geyer, Orion project manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. It is to replace what is now the bulky, aging space shuttles, much like a Hummer being replaced with a Prius — a Prius with a Ferrari engine.
Adding a safety system to the Orion crew exploration vehicle isn't as easy as putting airbags into an automobile, but the overall purpose has the same underlying principle, Gaddis said.
The idea is to safely lift the crew module away from the launch vehicle, pulling the crew to safety in the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during the initial ascent phase. Pulling them away requires 500,000 pounds of thrust in a short burst that creates 16 G's — 16 times earth's normal gravity for the occupants, and more than five times the G-force of a liftoff.
Breaking away from a vehicle already moving at an incredible speed requires a big blast to get the crew separated and out of the way, Barry Meredith, Orion Launch Abort System project manager, said just prior to the test, noting that the module has to essentially jump away from, not just get out of the way of, the giant engines below.
The sleek, eight-nozzle, 30-foot-long rocket, which was positioned upside down for Thursday's test, has an almost back-to-the-future look, a design similar to the capsules used during the Apollo missions in the 1960s.
"We're harking back, but to a tried-and-true method of space exploration with decades of fine tuning, then adding some serious upgrades," said Gary Beards, a lead engineer with ATK, noting that the titanium composite shell of the rocket is multiple times lighter and much better at withstanding the tremendous structural stress of pulling away from earth's gravity. "It can handle the torque and move but won't crack."
The Orion will feature the break-away system, which is actually three solid propellant rocket motors — the abort motor, an attitude control motor and a jettison motor. The crew can be separated from the Ares I rocket while on the pad and anytime during the first 300,000 feet of the rocket's climb into orbit.
Another milestone is in the works for next spring — a test of a full-size mock-up of the Orion crew capsule.
On Thursday, the high-impulse abort motor fired for 5.5 seconds, expending most of its 4,000 pounds of propellant in the first three seconds. Instead of the rocket plume exiting a rear nozzle, the manifold is placed at the forward end of the motor. The rocket thrust enters the manifold and is turned 155 degrees and forced out the four nozzles, creating a forward-pulling force.
The launch abort motor uses a composite case and an exhaust turn-flow technology instead of a tower, which results in weight savings, improved performance and improved success in crew survival during an abort.
ATK is the subcontractor responsible for the launch abort motor within NASA's Orion Project. Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles, Va., is responsible for integrating the launch abort system motor into the vehicle for Lockheed Martin Corp. of Denver, the prime contractor for Orion.
For images and video of the test firing and more information about NASA's Constellation Program, visit www.nasa.gov/constellation.