The new launch abort system provides crew with emergency escape capability throughout the entire flight and returns with
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) announced it has successfully
completed the preliminary design review of its launch abort system, a system
designed for manned missions using its Dragon spacecraft. This represents a
major step toward creating an American-made successor to the space shuttle.
NASA’s approval of the latest design review marks the fourth successfully
completed milestone under the agency’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev)
program and demonstrates the innovation that’s possible when NASA partners with
the private sector.
“Each milestone we complete brings the United States one step closer to
once again having domestic human spaceflight capability,” says former astronaut
Garrett Reisman, one of the two program leads of SpaceX’s DragonRider, which is
adding capabilities to the Dragon spacecraft for astronaut carriage.
Now that the Space Shuttle program has ended, the United States relies on
the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for astronaut transport, costing American taxpayers
as much as $62 million a seat. By comparison, Dragon is designed to carry seven
astronauts at a time for an unparalleled $20 million per seat.
As with all SpaceX designs, increased safety and reliability are paramount. “Dragon’s integrated launch abort system provides astronauts with the ability
to safely escape from the beginning of the launch until the rocket reaches
orbit,” explains David Giger, co-lead of the DragonRider program. “This level
of protection is unprecedented in manned spaceflight history.”
With the latest design review approved by NASA, SpaceX can now start
building the hardware at the heart of its innovative launch abort system. The
SpaceX design incorporates the escape engines into the side walls of Dragon,
eliminating a failure mode of more traditional rocket escape towers, which must
be successfully jettisoned during every launch. The integrated abort system
also returns with the spacecraft, allowing for easy reuse and radical
reductions in the cost of space transport. Over time, the same escape thrusters
will also provide Dragon with the ability to land with pinpoint accuracy on
Earth or another planet.
In its first flights, on June 4 and December 8, 2010, SpaceX’s Falcon 9
launch vehicle achieved consecutive mission successes. The December mission,
which was the first demonstration flight under NASA’s Commercial Orbital
Transportation Services (COTS) program, marked Dragon’s debut and established
SpaceX as the first private company to launch and recover a spacecraft from
orbit. As a result, many Falcon 9 and Dragon components required for
transporting humans to Earth orbit have already been demonstrated in flight.