Image credit: Richard Angle
This morning at 7am ET, NASA’s Orion spacecraft completed a critical test for the future of the SLS program and returning humans to the Moon. Orion launched on top of a refurbished Peacekeeper ICBM first stage that was supplied by Northrop Grumman (formerly Orbital ATK).
The abort test only lasted about 3 minutes, with the test concluding after the data recorders were jettisoned (separated) from the Orion crew capsule. The Launch Abort System (LAS) initiated at 31,000ft (9.4km) around 1.08x the speed of sound, carrying the capsule away from the Peacemaker booster. Orion reached an altitude of 44,000ft (13.4km) where the LAS separated from the capsule and allowed it to descend toward the Atlantic Ocean. To save on costs, parachutes were not installed on Orion since that was not apart of this test - they were only testing the LAS, and they’ve already rigorously evaluated those other systems separately. The abort motors produces 400,000lbs of thrust, so it can quickly carry the capsule and its occupants away from the largest rocket ever built by humans. Don Reed said during the post-launch press conference that if there were crew on board, "They would have been fine, with parachutes, of course".
This test was a big step toward NASA’s goal of landing humans on the moon in 2024, proving that if the Space Launch System (SLS) had an issue during launch, the astronauts would be able to safely escape. After the data is examined, it will give NASA the confidence that the LAS worked as expected and will give them the green light to continue developing and constructing the Space Launch System to bring a permanent human presence on the Moon by 2028.