NASA successfully tested a system designed to jettison the Orion crew module out of harm's way during a launch emergency and return it gently to the ground by parachute.
It's believed by some that such a system, had it been available at the time, could have saved the lives of the seven astronauts who died when space shuttle Challenger blew up shortly after launch on January 28, 1986.
Data showed at least some of the astronauts may have survived the initial explosion, only to be killed when the shuttle slammed into the Atlantic Ocean off Florida.
NASA launched the test vehicle early Thursday from the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range, near Las Crucas, N.M. The system consisted of the launch abort system and test crew capsule.
The abort system blasted the crew capsule away from the launch pad at more than 500 mph. 22 seconds late the abort system separated from the capsule, with the chutes deploying shortly thereafter. The capsule landed about one mile from the pad, at just 16.2 mph, NASA said.
The Orion capsule was, along with the Ares rocket, to be part of a new vehicle system that would have returned astronauts to the moon by 2020. President Obama, however, has scrapped the plan. The President said he believes NASA should bypass the moon and focus on more ambitious goals.
Specifically, he said he believes NASA can mount a manned mission to Mars by the mid-2030s. In a controversial move, Obama also called for the space agency to turn launches over to private contractors.
The president's revised budget plan retasks the Orion as an escape vehicle that could be permanently docked at the International Space Station, for use as a lifeboat in the event of an emergency at the ISS.
Obama said NASA will get more bang for its buck under his vision, and noted that that the space agency is in line for a $6 billion funding increase over the next five years under his proposed federal budget.
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