On Tuesday, July 7, Orbital ATK signed a contact with Lockheed Martin to provide the solid rocket motor for the launch abort system of NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. The $98 million contract will fund the development and qualification tests of the launch abort motor as well as its first two operational flights on Orion. The purpose of the motor will be to propel the Orion capsule and its occupants out of harm’s way in the event of a launch anomaly. Orbital ATK is also developing the attitude control motor for the launch escape system, bringing the company a total of $188 million in contracts for the project.
Orion’s launch escape system has been in development since the beginning of NASA’s Constellation Program in 2005. Under the guidelines in President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration in the wake of the Columbia accident, the successor to the Space Shuttle was to be designed with crew safety being the prime consideration. The new vehicle would be required to have launch abort capability during all phases of flight. Unlike all previous manned spacecraft, the Space Shuttle could not abort during ascent until the separation of the twin solid rocket boosters. This contributed to the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger and her crew in 1986 and was one of the most risky aspects of the Space Transportation System architecture. To minimize crew risk, a traditional capsule was chosen, mounted on top of its rocket where it would also be safe from falling debris.
After a competition to develop a launch escape system for Orion, a traditional tower was selected. Similar launch escape towers flew on Mercury and Apollo capsules as well as Russian manned spacecraft. In 2007, Orbital Sciences Corporation was selected as the prime contractor for Orion’s launch abort system and Orbital contracted ATK to provide the solid motors. The two companies would later merge to form Orbital ATK.
On May 6, 2010, a prototype of the launch abort system was tested at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The launch abort system carried a boilerplate Orion capsule to an altitude of 6,000 feet, simulating a pad abort scenario. While the demonstration was successful, further development was put on hold when the Obama administration terminated NASA’s Constellation Program.
While plans for a manned lunar program were scrapped along with the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles, funding for Orion was spared so that it could be utilized in the revised human spaceflight program. With the debut of the new Space Launch System (SLS) years away, the development of Orion shifted efforts to its heat shield, propulsion, and other systems critical to complete the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) mission. Due to budget and schedule constraints, development of other components including the launch abort system and Orion’s life support systems were put off until after the EFT-1 flight demonstration.
The EFT-1 mission launched the first Orion spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket on December 5, 2014. Although this test flight did not require an abort motor to meet its mission objectives, an inert launch escape system was mounted to the vehicle. This provided engineers at Orbital and ATK with valuable data on structural, aerodynamic, and thermal loads experienced in flight. The launch escape system’s jettison motor, produced by Aerojet Rocketdyne, was also tested on the flight. For those following the launch, the launch escape tower on top of the vehicle was a symbol of Orion’s role to one day carry a crew.
With this contract awarded to Orbital ATK, development of the launch abort system can fully resume. The next test flight of Orion will be on the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) flight, which will be launched on the very first SLS rocket in 2018. Because the EM-1 Orion will be unmanned, this flight will also carry an inert launch abort system. The second test flight of an active launch abort system, dubbed AA-2, is slated to take place the following year. The AA-2 high altitude abort test will launch from Cape Canaveral on an Orbital ATK Minotaur rocket to demonstrate the effectiveness of their launch escape system mid-flight. After this final test flight, the launch abort system will be ready to safeguard the first Orion crew on the EM-2 mission.
The launch abort motor will be manufactured at Orbital ATK facilities in Utah while the attitude control motor is manufactured in Elkton, Maryland under the existing contract with Lockheed Martin. Ground tests have been underway on the abort motor, including structural and load tests, open air igniter tests, and static test firings. These ground tests will ensure the motor’s reliability in flight in the unlikely event of an SLS launch failure. Charlie Precourt, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Propulsion Systems Division remarked on the importance of Orion’s launch abort system. “As a former astronaut, I firmly believe in the need for a robust launch abort system. Orbital ATK’s launch abort motor greatly increases the level of safety for future crews.”
Orbital ATK is also developing the solid rocket booster for SLS, derived from the Space Shuttle solid rocket booster. The company is modifying flown segments of Shuttle boosters, which will fly on SLS in a more powerful five-segment configuration, each producing 3.6 million pounds of thrust. The first static test firing of the new SRB was conducted on March 11 at Orbital ATK’s Promontory, Utah facility. Other upcoming milestones for SLS include the welding of its first core stage by Boeing, test firings of the Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engine at Stennis, avionics and controls testing at Marshall Space Flight Center, and the second test firing of a five-segment solid rocket booster by Orbital ATK. Orion and SLS are on track to send crews beyond low earth orbit as early as 2021.