(CBS News)–In a key test for the Artemis moon program, NASA launched a dummy Orion capsule Tuesday and then triggered the abort system designed to carry a crew to safety in the event of a catastrophic booster failure. The spectacular $256 million test appeared to go off without a hitch as the launch abort system, or LAS, pulled a 22,000-pound mockup of an Orion moonship safely away from its still-firing booster, showing it will work as advertised during the most aerodynamically stressful periods of flight.
To save time and money, the dummy capsule was not equipped with its own thrusters or parachutes and it plunged into the Atlantic Ocean about 7.5 miles east of Cape Canaveral after the test, hitting the water at some 300 mph. Data from some 890 sensors already had been radioed to the ground and stored on 12 ejectable recorders as a backup.
“Everything looked really good,” said Mark Kirasich, NASA’s Orion program manager. “The abort motor fired, the attitude control motor, the pressures were fine … by all first accounts it was a perfect test.”
The flight began at 7 a.m. EDT when the first stage motor from a decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBM, standing in for NASA’s gargantuan Space Launch System rocket, roared to life and shot away from pad 46 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Fifty-five seconds later, at an altitude of about 31,000 feet and traveling at more than 1,000 mph, the solid fuel-powered launch abort system, or LAS, ignited on computer command, spewing four jets of fiery exhaust and generating 400,000 pounds of thrust.
At that same instant, explosive bolts fired to free the LAS and the dummy Orion capsule from the still-firing booster.
The test was designed to verify the abort system would work as required in a worst-case scenario, when an SLS booster will be subjected to the most extreme aerodynamic forces during an actual climb to space. That point, known as “max Q,” occurs around the same time a rocket exceeds the speed of sound in the thick lower atmosphere.
NASA and its contractors are in the process of building the first SLS booster and the Orion capsules needed for its first three missions as part of the newly named Artemis moon program.
The Trump administration has directed NASA to land astronauts on the moon in 2024, four years earlier than originally planned. An unpiloted test flight of the SLS booster and Orion capsule is planned for late next year or early 2021 followed by a piloted flight of an Orion capsule carrying astronauts around the moon in the 2022 timeframe.
The third flight of an SLS will carry two astronauts to the surface of the moon in 2024. But before any of the piloted missions can fly, engineers must verify the performance of the launch abort system developed by Orion-builder Lockheed Martin.