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Orion Capsule Launch Abort System Test Successful

May 6, 2010

The new Orion crew capsule was successfully launched on Thursday as part of a test of its launch-abort system.

The launch-abort system catapulted the capsule from a desert launch pad at 7 a.m. and reached speeds of about 450 mph in just 2.5 seconds.  The capsule landed about a mile north of the launch site as hundreds of onlookers clapped and cheered.

The Orion launch-abort system is designed to whisk astronauts and the capsule to safety in case a problem on the launch pad occurs during the climb to orbit.

Jeff Sheehy, a NASA engineer working on the abort system, said the test appeared to be successful.

“Everything seems to have gone just like we wanted it to,” Sheehy told the Associated Press (AP).

A stream of white smoke trailed from the launch pad as the system arched through the sky as it deployed a series of parachutes, and then landed.

Doug Cooke, a NASA associate administrator, said the test was the first time a launch-abort system of this type has been used for a U.S. space travel system since the Apollo rockets of the 1960s and 1970s.

“But it’s much more advanced,” Cooke told AP. “It has more technology, more capabilities.”

The Russian Soyuz spacecraft uses a similar system as it transports cosmonauts to and from the International Space Station.

The abort system has been in development since 2006 and it involves a group of high-performance rocket motors that sit atop the capsule.

Heather McKay, a propulsion engineer with Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said the rocket system creates over 500,000 pounds of thrust to quickly catapult an astronaut crew from a launch pad emergency.

The Orion capsule was originally designed to take astronauts back to the moon.  However, President Barack Obama killed NASA’s $100 billion plans in February to return to the moon.

One proposal for the capsule is to use it as an escape vehicle for the International Space Station, that way U.S. astronauts would not have to rely on the Soyuz for an emergency ride home.

“It will transition to some useful purpose,” Sheehy said. “What that is remains to be seen. But what we’ve got is the basics of a crew survivability system.”

Image Caption: The Launch Abort System for the Pad Abort 1 test sits at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, N.M. seconds before launch. Credit: NASA TV

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