NASA's next generation of spacecraft will have the safest-ever astronaut escape system, a modern-day version of the reliable Apollo system. Like Apollo, the Orion launch abort system will swiftly propel the crew capsule away from the nose of the Ares I rocket and out of harm's way in case of an emergency on the launch pad or during ascent to orbit. Launch of the Max Launch Abort System at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility July 8, 2009 . Credit: NASA/Gary Banziger (flv). Also, as was the practice at times during development of key Apollo elements, while NASA engineers are working on the Orion launch abort system, another NASA team is investigating an alternate launch abort concept. The alternate system, called Max Launch Abort System, or MLAS, was successfully tested in a simulated pad abort test at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island , Va. , July 8. NASA's Constellation Program has three years toward designing the Orion crew exploration vehicle and the Ares launch vehicles that will return humans to the moon to live and work. The spacecraft designs are based on the technical principles established during the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs - yet incorporates the latest technology to expand the spacecraft's operational flexibility. The Orion launch abort system offers a proven method of pulling the crew out of danger in the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during the climb to Earth orbit.
MLAS is of potential interest because it is theorized to have aerodynamic performance benefits, weight savings and be relatively simple in some spacecraft applications. Much of the potential gains would be accomplished by eliminating the launch abort tower, which also means eliminating the attitude control motors. The MLAS demonstration vehicle consists of a full-scale composite fairing, a full-scale crew module simulator and four solid rocket abort motors mounted in the boost skirt with motor mass simulators in the forward fairing. Test items of interest began at the seven second mark with burnout of the solid motors. The test is primarily a demonstration of unpowered flight along a stable trajectory, MLAS vehicle reorientation and stabilization, followed by crew module simulator separation from the MLAS fairing, stabilization and the parachute recovery of the crew module simulator. MLAS is the first demonstration of a passively-stabilized launch abort system on a vehicle in this size and weight class. It is the first attempt to acquire full-scale aero-acoustic data -- the measurement of potentially harmful noise levels due to the capsule moving through the air at high speeds -- from a faired capsule in flight. It also is the first to demonstrate full scale fairing and crew module separation and collect associated aerodynamic and orientation data. In addition, data from the parachute element will help validate simulation tools and techniques for Orion's parachute system development