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7/9/2009
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Image Gallery: NASA's Launch Abort System

The space agency is testing the Max Launch Abort System (MLAS) to enable astronauts to escape in an emergency on the next-generation Orion spacecraft.




Liftoff of the MLAS emergency escape system test.
(click for image gallery)

The successor to "the most- dangerous manned spacecraft ever flown" is getting a significant safety upgrade.

Astronaut Mike Mullane, a veteran of three NASA shuttle missions, made the remark as the space program marked the 20th anniversary of the Challenger disaster in 2006. In 2003, a catastrophic failure at launch caused the shuttle Columbia to disintegrated over Texas.

"Basically," Mullane told The Guardian, "the bail-out system we have on the shuttle is the same bail-out system a B-17 bomber pilot had in World War II."

NASA has already settled on a launch abort system for its next-generation Orion spacecraft. But on July 8, the space agency test launched an alternative -- the Max Launch Abort System (MLAS).

The unpiloted excercise allowed NASA engineers to evaluate a system for ejecting a crew to safety should a problem occur on the launch pad or very early in its ascent. During the successful test at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, the vehicle reached an altitude of 1 mile before separating as planned into four pieces and dropping into the Atlantic with the aid of parachutes.

The sub-orbital launch of the 33-foot, 24-ton craft demonstrated full-scale crew module separation and allowed for the collecttion of associated aerodynamic and orientation data. Information derived from from the parachute element will help validate simulation tools and techniques for Orion's parachute system development.

NASA engineers will analyze the data and apply what they glean not only to Orion, but to other projects as well.

While the Orion launch abort system has a single solid launch abort motor in a tower positioned above the crew module, the alternative MLAS concept calls for four or more solid rocket motors to be attached inside a bullet-shaped fairing. Both are designed to propel the crew module away from the Ares I (launch) rocket in event of a launch emergency.

With two space shuttle disasters behind it and only seven space shuttle missions to go before the fleet is retired, NASA is setting its sights on Ares and Orion, the vehicles that will propel the Constellation program. Constellation's Orion will resume missions to the International Space Station and the moon. The first Orion missions are slated for 2015.

In the past, it was believed that development of a bail-out system for spacecraft was not practical. In the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster, former shuttle commander Robert Overmeyer told the AP, "You're covered such a short period of time, the benefit doesn't justify the weight and expense."

It's unlikely the Challenger astronauts would have survived even with an escape system.


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