NASA on Tuesday successfully conducted a test of the emergency abort system of the spacecraft it hopes will eventually take astronauts to the moon, a key step as the agency attempts to meet an ambitious White House mandate to get astronauts to the lunar surface within five years.
After blasting off from a launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7 a.m., the Orion spacecraft initiated its escape system less than a minute into flight, jettisoning the crew capsule to safety. The capsule eventually landed in the Atlantic Ocean several miles off shore.
"By all first accounts, it was a perfect test," said Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager.
No crew was aboard the spacecraft during what NASA called "a highflying, fast-paced trial." But the ability to get astronauts away in case anything were to happen to the rocket below them is a key concern for NASA. Late last year, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin were saved after the abort system of their Russian spacecraft kicked in two minutes after liftoff.
That abort - dubbed "a successful failure" by officials - was "a good message to all of us: this is serious stuff," NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik said in a prelaunch news conference. "We have to prepare for this even though there's a low likelihood of it happening."
NASA officials hailed Tuesday's test as a key step in its quest to land humans on the moon by 2024 in a program it has dubbed Artemis.
In March, Vice President Mike Pence called for the agency to speed up its plans. Originally, NASA had been aiming to get astronauts to the lunar surface by 2028. But Pence directed the program to be accelerated by four years. In doing so, he took aim at NASA's bureaucracy, saying it "must transform itself into a leaner, more accountable and more agile organization."
Officials at Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the Orion program, have hailed the White House's plans, and said Tuesday's test cleared a major hurdle.
"The test flight performed perfectly," said Mike Hawes, Lockheed's Orion program manager. "Hopefully this will be the last time we see this launch abort system ever work. But this test brings confidence that if needed on future Orion missions, it will safely pull the crew module and astronauts away from a life threatening event during launch."
NASA said the test brings the agency a step closer to getting astronauts to the moon. But instead of sending astronauts directly to the lunar surface, as was done during the Apollo era, NASA plans instead to first build an outpost in orbit around the moon, known as the Gateway. The Orion spacecraft would take astronauts to the Gateway, from which they would fly to the surface of the moon by a lunar lander. Later, they'd return to the Gateway aboard an ascent vehicle and fly back to Earth on the Orion.
During Tuesday's three-minute test, the Orion spacecraft was listed from launchpad 46 not by the Space Launch System, the massive rocket being built to fly it, but instead by a refurbished rocket motor from a Peacekeeper missile. It hit an altitude of 31,000 feet, or about six miles high.
At that point it was expected to be traveling more than 800 mph, or just faster than the speed of sound, but still in the atmosphere so that there would be "tremendous aerodynamic forces on the vehicle," Kirasich said. Less than a minute into flight, the abort system thrusters activated, pulling the capsule away and giving it a wild ride before it eventually slammed into the Atlantic Ocean a few minutes later.
Normally, the capsule would be guided down softly by parachutes. But NASA officials said that since the parachutes for the system have already been repeatedly tested, none were needed Tuesday. Abandoning the parachutes also helped NASA accelerate the schedule, officials said.
As a result, the capsule was expected to be traveling about 300 mph when it slammed into the water. The impact was expected to destroy the capsule, which then would sank to the ocean floor.
Still, NASA said it was able to collect all sorts of data from the flight. There were 890 sensors on the vehicle to measure, in real time, temperature, pressure and acoustics.
Orion has only flown once, in 2014, on a four-and-a-half-hour test mission without a crew that sent a spacecraft designed for humans farther than any had gone in more than 40 years. NASA is hoping to fly it again next year, this time with the SLS rocket, on a trip without a crew on a mission around the moon. NASA plans to fly with a crew around the moon in 2022, and then reach the lunar surface two years later.