KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL — Before our astronauts will ever be allowed to step inside and soar to space aboard NASA’s new Orion deep space crew capsule, a critical test flight proving out the efficacy of the in-flight launch abort system and hardware must first be flown.
“We cannot put people on board of Orion until we prove that the ascent abort system will save the crew”, Jules Schneider, Orion Project Manager for Lockheed Martin, told AmericaSpace at the Kennedy Space Center. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion.
The critical abort test will be conducted during a one-time-only re-flight of NASA’s first Orion capsule that just flew to space and back on the hugely successful Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission on Dec. 5, 2014.
The mandatory safety demonstration flight test “is called Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2)” and is targeted for “launch in 2018,” said Schneider during Orion’s homecoming arrival to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and the Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) on Dec. 19, 2014, attended by the media including AmericaSpace.
Therefore, the used and now flight-proven Orion EFT-1 capsule will live to see another flight day by being recycled for the AA-2 abort mission, which must be flown before any America astronauts will be allowed on Orion’s first crewed flight, currently targeted for about the 2020 to 2021 timeframe.
AmericaSpace asked Schneider to explain the objectives of AA-2.
“We are going to reuse this particular Orion capsule on our ascent abort flight called Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2),” Schneider explained to AmericaSpace.
When the Orion EFT-1 crew module is reflown on the AA-2 flight, it will be equipped on top with a fully functioning Launch Abort System (LAS). During ascent the LAS is designed to pull the capsule—and the astronauts inside—away from a failing or exploding rocket either on the launch pad or in-flight in a split second to save the crews lives in the event of a launch emergency and swiftly maneuver the capsule for a safe, albeit harrowing, landing.
The recent catastrophic explosive destruction of the Antares rocket and incineration of the unmanned Cygnus cargo freighter into a hellish inferno, which this writer witnessed moments after launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Oct. 28, was a vivid and stark reminder of the inherent dangers of spaceflight and rocketry and the thin line between fantastic success and utter, unforgiving failure.
The Antares launch failure points out precisely why the LAS and similar abort systems are absolutely essential for Orion and NASA’s commercial crew capsules under development by Boeing with the CST-100 and SpaceX with the Dragon V2.
Back in 2010, NASA successfully conducted the Orion Pad Abort-1 (PA-1) test to simulate a launch pad failure. AA-2 will test the in-flight failure scenario.
“We cannot put people on board of Orion until we prove that the ascent abort system will save the crew off the pad – which we have already done when we flew PA-1 several years ago,” Schneider elaborated.
“And we also have to prove we can save the crew during the most strenuous environments during ascent.”
“So that’s what the Ascent Abort-2 test will do.”
The LAS is comprised of the fairing assembly and the launch abort tower which hold three types of solid propellant engines: the abort motor, the attitude control motor, and the jettison motor.
On EFT-1, only the jettison motor was active. It is used on every flight, and during a nominal mission it pulls the LAS away about six minutes into flight after the most dangerous period of the ascent has passed.
On AA-2, all three motors will be active and tested.
“The purpose of AA-2 is to launch the vehicle and test the Launch Abort System (LAS),” Glenn Chin, NASA KSC Orion deputy for production operations explained to AmericaSpace.
“The major goal is a test to ensure that the LAS can safely pull off the crew capsule from an already launched vehicle.”
What type rocket will AA-2 launch on?
During its normal deep space missions, Orion has been designed to launch atop NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, concurrently under development.
But SLS is not ready yet and not needed for AA-2. Instead a retired Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) named ‘ Peacekeeper’ will be used, which was built during the Cold War and equipped at that time with 10 multiply-targeted nuclear warheads aimed at the Soviet Union.
“The Ascent Abort-2 flight will basically use a ‘Peacekeeper’ missile. We have procured that,” said Chin.
Under our nuclear arms reduction treaties with the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation), the Peacekeeper missile can only be launched for peaceful purposes from five specific sites in the U.S.
Therefore, where will AA-2 launch from?
“It will be launched from Space Launch Complex 46 (SLC-46) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,” Chin elaborated.
But SLC-46 hasn’t been used for launches in some time, this writer asked.
“The pad is being refurbished and hasn’t been used in awhile.”
“SLC-46 will be refurbished for this mission. That work will be done through Space Florida.”
The Peacekeeper missile can also be launched from NASA Wallops.
It was recently used to successfully launch NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter in September 2013 from pad 0B at NASA Wallops by Orbital Sciences.
The Peacekeeper was modified and upgraded by Orbital Sciences into the Minotaur V launch vehicle.
Check out my LADEE launch photos herein to see what a Peacekeeper/Minotaur V blastoff looks like.
Orion’s life began barely three weeks ago, during the Dec. 5, 2014, inaugural test flight with the picture perfect launch atop the 242-foot-tall United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket—the world’s most powerful booster—at 7:05 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The flawless two-orbit, 4.5-hour flight maiden Orion test flight carried the EFT-1 capsule to an altitude of 3,604 miles—farther away from Earth than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has traveled in more than four decades.
After successfully completing all its orbital flight test objectives, the reentry thrusters were fired for Orion’s high speed atmospheric reentry approaching 20,000 mph (32,000 kph) or about 85 percent of the reentry velocity for astronauts returning from journeys to deep space destinations like the Moon, asteroids, and Mars.
It endured scorching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2200 C) to test the 16.5-foot-wide heat shield and thermal protection tiles during the 10-minute descent.
After being slowed by the trio of massive red and white main parachutes to about 17 mph (27 kph), Orion safely accomplished a statistical bulls-eye splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, some 600 miles southwest of San Diego, at 11:29 a.m. EST—within one mile of the predicted touchdown spot.
It was recovered from the Pacific by a combined team from NASA, the U.S. Navy, and Lockheed Martin, safely towed into the flooded well deck of the USS Anchorage, off-loaded at U.S. Naval Base San Diego, and hauled 2700 miles cross country from California on a flat bed truck back to KSC, arriving on Dec. 19 before the Christmas holidays.
“The Orion EFT-1 mission was a spectacular success,” said Schneider.
“The heat shield performed very well. I don’t know if you can tell, we’ve actually taken a few core samples off the heat shield already and we’re looking at those,” Schneider explained.
“We will be removing the heat shield from this vehicle later in February  so we will get an ever better look at it.”
“So we have to fly AA-2 before we can put people aboard Orion. So we will use this EFT-1 crew module as the crew module for the ascent abort flight.”
Stay tuned here for continuing updates on Orion, commercial crew, and more.
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