October 28, 2011
SpaceX Wins Preliminary NASA Approval Of Launch Abort System
SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk, along with other leaders in the private space industry, testified before lawmakers on Wednesday, seeking to secure funding to develop a replacement for the Space Shuttles that were decommissioned earlier this year.
Wired.com's Jason Paur reports that SpaceX recently completed a preliminary design review by NASA of its launch abort system, meaning the company´s Dragon spacecraft is now on its way to being approved for manned missions.
Conventional rocket-boosted space capsules have relied upon a “tractor” abort system, in which a small tower atop the capsule contains rocket motors that could pull the capsule away from the rocket in the case of an emergency during launch. These small rockets would provide the thrust for the capsule to ascend to an altitude high enough so parachutes could be deployed and the crew could drift safely back to Earth.
However, these tractor systems must be jettisoned during every launch once the rocket surpasses the critical altitude at which the tower is required — and large problems occur if it is not jettisoned.
SpaceX´s launch abort system solves this problem by using small rockets attached to the side of the Dragon spacecraft, which push the capsule to a high enough altitude to deploy the parachutes during any aborted launch. Because the rockets remain with the capsule, the risks of the tractor tower system unsuccessfully jettisoning is eliminated.
The integrated abort system is also less costly because the motors can be reused, and SpaceX hopes the systems´ thrusters can give the Dragon spacecraft the ability to make precise landings.
Musk was one of five executives from private space companies -- SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Systems, ATK Launch Systems and United Launch Alliance -- testifying before the House Committee of Science, Space, and Technology during Wednesday´s hearing on NASA´s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.
The executives urged lawmakers to fund the CCDev program, which provides money to private companies to develop a commercially viable system that could replace the Space Shuttle. NASA is currently paying more than $450 million per year to the Russian space program to provide rides to space onboard their Soyuz spacecraft.
The CCDev program is seeking $850 million this year to fund the development of an alternative system.
SpaceX will likely to perform an unmanned test flight that would dock with the International Space System early next year, Wired reported. Assuming full funding of the CCDev program, the hope is for a manned flight to occur by 2014 or 2015.
Image Caption: Artist's rendering of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft delivering cargo to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
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