NASA Building Test Pad at White Sands for New Spacecraft

NASA took a step toward sending a new generation of explorers to the moon with the groundbreaking for a new test launch pad at White Sands Missile Range Nov. 14. NASA and a handful of community representatives broke ground at the Launch Complex-32 site, where the Orion Abort Flight Test Launch Complex will be built.

The pad will be the site of a series of tests of the launch abort system that will help ensure the safety of astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft, NASA’s crew exploration vehicle. The first of five unmanned abort tests is scheduled for Sept. 23, 2008 from the new pad.

White Sands Test Center Commander Col. Bruce Lewis welcomed guests to the range.

“We continue our support of NASA. We are pleased to offer White Sands’ unique assets of extensive land mass, restricted air space, tremendous data collection capabilities, and extremely talented workforce to the Orion flight test program,” Col. Lewis said.

Orion Project Manager Skip Hatfield said NASA has a long history of working with White Sands and testing these kinds of systems. “It is a great privilege for us to be here and continue that relationship,” he said.

Two pad abort tests, known as PA-1 and PA-2, will be followed by ascent abort tests to verify safe abort performance during critical phases of the Ares I ascent profile. The White Sands ascent abort tests will use an abort test booster, which is a retired Peacekeeper missile stage, designed to propel the Orion test elements to the required abort test conditions.

Denco, Inc., of Las Cruces was awarded the contract for the construction of launch site facilities at White Sands. Denco will be responsible for the first work package of the Project Orion Abort Flight Test Launch Facility. The package covers construction of a 120-by-160-foot final integration and test facility building and surrounding site improvements and infrastructure.

Orion is part of the Constellation Program to send human explorers back to the moon, and then onward to Mars and other destinations in the solar system.

The White Sands flight tests will focus on the ability of Orion’s launch abort system to pull the crew safely away from the launch vehicle in the event of a problem on the launch pad or during the climb into orbit.

The five launch abort system flight tests at White Sands are part of a broader flight test campaign that will also include six launches from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Orion is similar in shape to the Apollo spacecraft in which astronaut Vance Brand, who was present at the ceremony, flew on as part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

Orion takes advantage of 21st century technology in computers, electronics, life support, propulsion and heat protection systems.

Brand said the Orion program is very significant because it will take the U.S. in a new direction and will eventually replace the space shuttle.

He said the launch abort system is very important especially for crew members because it will help ensure their safe return in the event of a problem. “It is very comforting to know you have a system like that, and testing it to make sure it works is very important,” Mr. Brand said.

On Jan. 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died when a fire broke out in the cockpit of their spacecraft during a pre-launch test for Apollo 1.

The launch abort system, mounted on top of the Orion crew module, centers around three solid propellant rocket motors: an abort motor; an attitude control motor; and a jettison motor.

The launch abort system must be ready to operate in a wide variety of different environmental conditions, NASA officials said, adding that the test program is designed to test all of these conditions.

NASA’s Orion project office at NASA Johnson Space Center is leading a government and contractor team to validate and verify the spacecraft’s launch abort system. Lockheed Martin Corp. is NASA’s prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft and its launch abort system.

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