On Tuesday morning at 7am EDT, NASA successfully completed the final major flight test for their Orion crew capsule.
At an altitude of around 9.5 kilometres (6 miles), the abort system activated pulling the Orion spacecraft clear of the booster. Orion's tower-like abort structure features two parts: a fairing assembly shell made with a lightweight material that protects it from the heat, air flow, and acoustics of the launch, ascent, and abort environments, and the launch abort tower that includes the abort motor, attitude control motor, and the jettison motor. The abort system re-oriented the capsule and jettisoned before splashing down in the Atlantic. "The neat part is, the next time this full launch abort system flies there will be crew underneath it in Artemis 2". The test lasted 3 minutes and 13 seconds, a bit longer than expected.
The abort test is a critical milestone in certifying the capsule for human spaceflight on the Artemis 2 mission, which could happen in the early 2020s. In a news conference following the launch, Don Reed, NASA's manager of the Orion Program's Flight Test Management, said the abort structure accelerated 260 miles per hour faster than booster was carrying the rocket, bringing the capsule's speed to over 1000 miles per hour breifly.
NASA officials hailed the test as a key step in its quest to land humans on the moon by 2024 in a program it has dubbed Artemis. Once the abort sequence triggered, the abort motor fired to pull the crew module away from the spacecraft. To get there, NASA will use the Space Launch System (SLS), a powerful rocket that's still under development. The first flight test was in 2010 simulating a static abort from the launch pad. From there the astronauts can use another vehicle to descend to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.
Mission managers said the test appears successful.
A suite of 12 data recorders helped collect data on the launch and abort procedure, and all that information will be closely studied by NASA in order to better understand exactly how well the abort went.
"Everything looked really good", said Mark Kirasich, NASA's Orion program manager. The three-minute test went off smoothly, and engineers will now comb over the collected data in greater detail.