When Good Rockets Go Bad: Orion's Launch Abort System

March 2, 2016 – 04:28 am

Topics:Orion, human spaceflight

One of the tricky parts of launching humans into space is deciding what to do if something goes wrong. No matter the launch vehicle, getting from the ground to orbit requires riding a controlled explosion for about nine minutes. It stands to reason that if the controlled explosion suddenly becomes uncontrolled—or stops altogether—it would be nice to have a backup plan.

On conventional rockets, where a capsule full of humans sits at the very tip of the launch vehicle, it makes sense to have a second controlled explosion at the ready that can pull the capsule away from whatever went wrong. This second rocket motor is usually built into a tower attached to the capsule, which, under normal launch conditions, gets thrown away once the capsule makes it through most of Earth's atmosphere. Future capsule designs by companies like SpaceX plan to forgo the tower and use thrusters built into the capsule. These thrusters could also be used to land the capsule in lieu of parachutes, which normally bring spacecraft home under both normal and abort scenarios.

NASA has a lot of experience with the tower system—it's been used on every American human spaceflight program except Gemini and the space shuttle. Gemini relied solely on ejection seats, but the shuttle's abort scenarios were altogether different beasts.Orion integrated with Launch Abort System They involved wild acrobatics that fortunately never had to be used, except for the time one of Challenger's main engines failed, and the shuttle hobbled into low-Earth orbit without much of a problem. The trouble with the shuttle's abort modes was highlighted in 1986, when Challenger's external fuel tank disintegrated, throwing the orbiter into the local airflow at forces way above design tolerances. It ripped apart, claiming the lives of seven astronauts. For the shuttle, there wasn't much you could do if the entire rocket stack suddenly fell apart around the orbiter.

So for Orion, NASA's new spacecraft, the capsule and tower system are back. Critics have questioned why NASA didn't try out next-generation abort systems like built-in thrusters or powered landings.Orion discards its Launch Abort System They argue Orion is simply an Apollo redux—and that other NewSpace capsules are, as one prominent journalist once told me, "still f—ing capsules." But other considerations aside, capsules and launch abort towers are a safe bet for a government agency trying to please a long list of bureaucrats, politicians and industry leaders. Especially when Orion's end goal—humans on Mars—is far from a safe bet.

Orion's first test flight happens this December, when a Delta IV Heavy rocket will send the spacecraft on a two-orbit shakedown cruise. The spacecraft is currently sitting in the aptly-named Launch Abort System Facility, and won't roll out to the pad until November. At the LAS Facility, Orion's abort tower was gingerly installed by engineers wearing lab coats and hair nets. A hand-written sign taped to scaffolding around the capsule read "MAN LOAD, 2 Persons Total, 1 on Top Deck at a Time, " serving as a reminder that people are the heart and soul of spacecraft engineering—a field that occasionally still uses Apollo-era terms like "man load."


Orion integrated with Launch Abort System
Orion sits all buttoned up for its December 2014 test flight following the integration of its Launch Abort System.

Source: www.planetary.org

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