CAPE CANAVERAL – Heeding a lesson from history, designers of a new generation of US rockets will include escape systems to give crew members a fighting chance of surviving launch accidents such as the one that felled an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket.
The US space agency NASA bypassed escape systems for the now-retired space shuttle fleet, believing the spaceships to be far safer than they turned out to be. The illusion was shattered on January 28 1986, when gas leaking from a solid-fuel booster rocket doomed the shuttle challenger and its seven crew about 72 seconds after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Taking a page from design books for the 1960s-era Mercury and Apollo capsules, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s next manned spaceship, Orion, will include a rocket-powered tower attached to the top of the spacecraft that can separate from a troubled launch vehicle and parachute the crew to safety.
The so-called Launch Abort System can activate in milliseconds, catapulting the crew capsule about 1 mile in altitude in seconds. “We proved in shuttle that it was a bad idea to not have a launch escapes system – so there’s been a lot of work to build this really Cadillac version of a launch escape tower that they’ve got on Orion,” said Wayne Hale, a former NASA space shuttle program manager who oversees human space flight for Colorado-based consulting firm Special Aerospace Services.
“It’s a big, heavy capsule that requires a big, heavy rocket that steers you all over the sky to get away from problems with the big rocket booster. It’s a huge system,” Hale said.