NASA launches Orion crew capsule to test abort system


The scene at Port Canaveral in Florida after NASA's test of the Orion capsule's launch abort system.

The rocket will launch Orion 6 miles into the atmosphere, going more than Mach 1, to experience high-stress aerodynamic conditions.

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 event will last only about three minutes, but it will be a major milestone in clearing Orion to safely transport humans to space. "The abort motor fired, the attitude control motor, the pressures were all first accounts it was a flawless test". The "stack" - the parts comprising the rocket, abort system and capsule - that launched is about 93 feet tall.

NASA aims to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024 using its still-in-development Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket.

Launching into space is one of the most hard and unsafe parts of going to the Moon, said Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) designed and built the launch abort system for the test and is also the prime contractor building the Orion spacecraft for NASA. It looks to have been a success, but NASA will hold a press conference later to discuss what data was acquired during the test. That allows a broader range of conditions under which the abort system will work to safely remove astronauts from the risky, fuel-filled rocket.

Barely a minute after lift-off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the abort motor fired, pulling the capsule from the booster about six miles up. - NASA is testing a critical safety feature on its Orion crew capsule Tuesday.

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.

The abort motor ignites (front of rocket) at an altitude of about 31,000 feet.

The spectacular $256 million test appeared to go off without a hitch as the launch abort system, or LAS, pulled a 22,000-pound mockup of an Orion moonship safely away from its still-firing booster, showing it will work as advertised during the most aerodynamically stressful periods of flight.

After the primary abort motor burned out, the attitude control system, responding to guidance commands, flipped the Orion around into a tail-first orientation for the fall back toward Earth.

The Orion capsule was launched atop a modified Peacekeeper missile. AA-2 is the final test and demonstration of the full-up launch abort system.

A little over 20 seconds later, the jettison motor pulled the capsule away from the rocket. "They were labeled, ejected out of canisters and floated in the water".

"We are incredibly excited", said Jenny Devolites, Ascent Abort-2 crew module manager and test conductor.