The Orion capsule is dead; long live the Orion capsule. Yesterday in the New Mexico desert, NASA successfully completed a test of the resurrected craft's launch-abort system. Rockets blasting with 500,000 pounds of thrust carried it more than a mile into the sky before releasing it for a parachute-aided descent back to the Earth.
The launch-abort system is designed to pull the astronauts and the Orion capsule away from the launch pad in the event of a problem such as fire. It is also designed to catapult them away from the rocket if an emergency occurs during the climb to orbit [The Denver Post].
Orion, however, may never need this launch-abort system. The craft was originally intended to be the crew capsule in the Constellation program, riding into space atop heavy-lift rockets and ferrying astronauts back to the moon or to Mars. Like the rest of Constellation it was left out of President Obama's January budget.
But when the President revised his plan in April he proposed re-purposing Orion as an escape vehicle for the International Space Station.
The aging US space shuttle fleet, which carries astronauts to the International Space Station, is due to be grounded at the end of the year, leaving US astronauts to hitch rides on Russian spacecraft to orbiting station until a replacement is developed.
Orion is now being considered as an escape module for the ISS so US astronauts do not have to rely on Russian craft for a return to Earth [AFP].
So even if President Obama's plan comes to fruition, Orion still may not need this launch-abort system in its new role. However, NASA says the test's success is still crucial for the future of space flight.
NASA personnel say elements of the abort system could find use somewhere, whether with Orion or on the privately operated rockets that Obama wants to hire to ferry astronauts to orbit after the shuttle's phaseout [Scientific American].
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