John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter
At a test in the New Mexico desert this morning, NASA carried off what it called a successful test of a launch abort system for Orion, the crew capsule designed to return astronauts to orbit and beyond after the space shuttle retires this year or next. The system, which would rocket the crew to safety in the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during ascent, roared into the sky at 9:00 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time from White Sands Missile Range. A dummy crew capsule then detached and parachuted back to Earth about two minutes later.
The only question is whether the launch escape system will ever find use atop a real rocket. In February a budget request from President Barack Obama sought to cancel the family of next-generation space hardware to which Orion belongs, known as the Constellation Program, along with the program’s goal of returning to the moon in the near term.
Orion earned a partial reprieve from Obama in April, when the president traveled to Florida to make the case for his controversial space plan. In a speech at Kennedy Space Center, Obama said he had directed NASA to begin work on an Orion-derived escape pod for the International Space Station. But that reprieve would not involve manned launches with Orion, which the launch abort system is designed to protect.
Nevertheless, NASA personnel say elements of the abort system could find use somewhere, whether with Orion or on the privately operated rockets that Obama wants to hire to ferry astronauts to orbit after the shuttle’s phaseout. According to Spaceflight Now, Mark Geyer, project manager for Orion, told reporters that the test had demonstrated integration of the key elements to a launch abort system, regardless of the choice of rocket. "So I think it’s obviously very much applicable to any other system," he said.
Photo of dummy capsule below launch abort tower: U.S. Army White Sands Test Facility