PROMONTORY, Box Elder Country — In the world of rocket science and space flight, good and bad things can happen in a split second. And what virtually any scientist will tell you is that planning for the worst is what prevents many bad things from occurring in the first place.
On a sunny, warm spring day in the vast openness of Box Elder County — at exactly 1 p.m. — an intense blast of superhot light flashed several stories into the air billowing thick plumes of smoke high into the blue sky above. Within a few seconds came the frighteningly loud roar created by the ignition of the Orbital ATK launch abort motor, which was being tested before large crowds watching from two vantage points, including the roadway below and a viewing location situated safely above the test site.
Engineers were testing NASA’s Space Launch System that will incorporate the launch abort motors designed to safely pull the crew of the Orion flight module away from the vehicle in the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during ascent into orbit. Though short in nature — only about 7 seconds — by all accounts the test went smoothly to the relief and delight of interested onlookers, including Steve Sara, launch abort director for Orbital ATK.
"This is to test the performance under hot, higher temperature conditions to validate the design that we have," he explained. "This is the operational design that we want to make sure is working correctly."
This exercise was a qualification test to ensure the design is adequate for use in the Orion space vehicle that will be used to eventually send manned missions into deep space exploration, including a planned mission to Mars in approximately 2021.
"Qualification means that you have verified by test that your design and all your analysis is correct and that it will perform to its requirements, and therefore it will be ready for flight," Sara said. "This is an integral part of the Orion vehicle in that it is the escape vehicle for astronauts in case of an emergency — both on the (launch) pad and up to 300,000 feet during ascent."
The abort motor activates within milliseconds in the event of an emergency, and lifts the crew module to safety with an acceleration over 10 Gs. The launch abort motor goes from zero to between 400 mph to 500 mph in two seconds.
Veteran astronaut Rex Walheim witnessed the test firing. During his career, he participated in three space flights logging more than 36 days in space and five spacewalks. Walheim served on the final flight of the space shuttle program in 2011.
He said this new abort system is a great advancement from previous versions because it provides a level of safety that didn't exist when he was flying in space.
"The launch abort system is a way to take the capsule that we're flying in and pull it off the rocket if there is something wrong," he said. "It's kind of akin to an ejection seat and gives us that extra layer of safety, so if there is something wrong with the vehicle, you can get off safely. Whereas the shuttle was a great vehicle, but we were on the side of the propulsion stack and if something happened to the stack, there was no easy way to get off."
He touted the new system as a way to improve space travel and provide an enhanced experience for future astronauts.
"We always want to build upon the safety of the last program, and this is one way to do that," he said. "We'll know that on a bad day, we'll have a way out."
Walheim, who has a master's degree in engineering, worked on development of the Orion program and said his experience offers some perspective on how the vehicle could best function for its occupants.
"My engineering background helps me make educated decisions, but the actual details of the design is for the experts who (build it)," he said.
He noted that as a child he dreamed of becoming an astronaut and has been able to fulfill that longtime ambition. Today's successful test gives him even more enthusiasm for the possibilities that lie ahead as man attempts to travel farther into the "great beyond."
"That's what is so exciting about this (test), to see the rocket motors used on this (vehicle)," Walheim said. "The next few years are going to be a great time for the space program and the country."