NASA tests system to pull astronauts to safety during rocket failure

The Orion test spacecraft launching on a test of its abort system. Photo: NASA

NASA successfully tested the escape system for the Orion crew capsule Tuesday that would be used to pull a crew of astronauts away from a failing rocket in the moments after launch.

Why it matters: This uncrewed test marked an important step toward NASA's goal of landing astronauts back on the surface of the Moon as part of its Artemis program by 2024.

NASA hopes to use its Orion capsule and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to make that mission a reality. The first test flight for the integrated system is expected in 2020, though some reports suggest it will likely be delayed.

Details: The test took about 3 minutes, with a test version of Orion flying to an altitude of about 6 miles attached to a modified Peacekeeper missile, according to NASA.

  • The abort was then triggered, and Orion was pulled away from the rocket by its abort motor.
  • From there, the abort system's attitude control motor "flipped the capsule end-over-end to properly orient it, and then the jettison motor fired, releasing the crew module for splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean," NASA said in a statement.
  • During a typical abort, Orion would deploy parachutes to slow its speed before splashdown, but in this case, NASA allowed the test article to crash into the ocean instead.
  • NASA will now spend time analyzing the data gathered during the test and collecting the flight recorders jettisoned by Orion on its way back to Earth.

Between the lines: While the test appears to have been a success, it's also been a long time coming. The Orion and SLS programs have experienced years of delays due to budget and technical issues.

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