NASA's Orion Crew Capsule Aces Big Safety Test

Katie Ramirez
July 2, 2019

NASA chose not to use parachutes to keep this test version of the capsule simple and thus save time, and so it crashed into the Atlantic at 300 miles per hour (480 kph) as planned, the three-minute test complete. The launch abort motors, generating 400,000 pounds of thrust, then pulled the Orion capsule away from the rocket which was already traveling almost 1,000 miles per hour.

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article said there were 900 data sensors - but those are part of 12 data recorders, which are the orange boxes that will be jettisoned. The test itself will only last for about three minutes, with coverage set to start approximately 20 minutes prior to launch.

But in a bid to keep costs down and carry out the abort test as soon as possible, NASA managers opted to use a dummy capsule without any parachutes or control systems, all of which have been tested separately.

This will be one of a number of test conducted by NASA and its industry partners to prove that space systems meet the agency's requirements for certification to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Launching into space is one of the most hard and risky parts of going to the Moon, said Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Previously, workers experimented with Orion's test flight article, which featured a similar design of the actual vehicle destined for deep-space exploration.

A test version of Orion launched at 7 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT) from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, taking to the skies atop the refurbished first-stage motor of a Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile. Analysis of the information will provide insight into the abort systems performance. The next time the abort system is used, astronauts will be on board.

This was the second abort test for Orion.

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"It looked like a complete mission success to me", said Blake Watters, a launch-abort-system propulsion engineer at Lockheed Martin Corp, Orion's manufacturer.

NASA has contracted Elon Musk's SpaceX and Boeing Co to build separate crew capsule systems capable of carrying astronauts to the space station. Then, the abort was initiated, causing the abort motor and attitude control motor, which provides steering, to ignite.

Instead of sending astronauts directly to the lunar surface, as was done during the Apollo era, NASA plans instead to first build an outpost in orbit around the moon, known as the Gateway.

An instant after ignition, the motor is generating 400,000 pounds of thrust, pulling a mockup of an Orion capsule away from its booster.

The stakes are high, not just for the space agency, but for America's White House as well. "They were labeled, ejected out of canisters and floated in the water".

"We're not expecting it to stay intact when it hits", Jenny Devolites, the NASA test manager, said during the prelaunch briefing.

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