The critical launch abort system for NASA’s Orion spacecraft was put to its hardest test on July 2, 2019, and it demonstrated its capability to pull the crew module and future astronauts to safety during a launch if there is an emergency. Lockheed Martin designed and built the launch abort system for the test and is also the prime contractor building the Orion spacecraft for NASA.
The Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) flight test is a major test milestone that is enabling the safe passage of astronauts aboard Orion on the Artemis missions to the Moon and then Mars.
During the test this morning from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, the Orion launch abort system, with a mock-up Orion capsule, was launched on a modified Peacekeeper missile. At 31,000 feet/9,449 m, or about six miles up, into the flight, the on-board computers initiated the abort sequence. The launch abort motors, generating 400,000 pounds/181,437 kg of thrust, then pulled the Orion capsule away from the rocket which was already traveling nearly 1,000 mph/1,609 km/h. Using its attitude control motor, the abort system then reoriented itself and jettisoned the Orion capsule using its jettison motor. The total test took less than three minutes.
«The test flight performed perfectly, not to mention it was really exciting to watch», said Mike Hawes, Orion program manager for Lockheed Martin Space. «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».
The Orion launch abort system is the highest thrust and acceleration escape system ever developed and is the only system of its kind in the world. It’s a major system that makes the Orion exploration-class spaceship the safest spacecraft ever built.
This is the second time the Orion launch abort system has been put to the test. The first flight test was in 2010 simulating a static abort from the launch pad. AA-2 is the final test and demonstration of the full-up launch abort system.
NASA’s Orion spacecraft for the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission to the Moon is being developed at the NASA Kennedy Space Center and will soon head into environmental testing – all in preparation for a 2020 launch.
Northrop Grumman Corporation shipped the inert abort motor for NASA’s Orion spacecraft Launch Abort System (LAS) from the Northrop Grumman facility in Magna, Utah, to Kennedy Space Center, Florida. It will be integrated with the LAS and Orion spacecraft destined for the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, designated Artemis 1.
The abort motor is a key component of the LAS, which provides an enhancement in spaceflight safety for astronauts. The shipment of the abort motor brings Orion one step closer to Artemis 1 and to enabling humans to explore the moon, Mars and other deep-space destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.
«Crew safety is always a top priority, and Orion’s Launch Abort System is state-of-the-art», said Charlie Precourt, vice president, propulsion systems, Northrop Grumman, and former four-time shuttle astronaut. «The solid propulsion we use in the abort motor is high-performing and reliable; it should inspire confidence in any future Orion crew members and their families».
The purpose of Orion’s LAS is to safely pull the spacecraft and crew out of harm’s way in the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during initial launch ascent. The abort motor underwent a series of component tests culminating in a successful static test in December 2018 at the Northrop Grumman facility in Promontory, Utah. Data from these tests confirmed motor activation within milliseconds and under both extreme cold and hot temperatures, ensuring crew safety.
The abort motor, which stands over 17 feet/5.2 m tall and spans three feet in diameter, is unique in that it has a manifold with four exhaust nozzles. The motor, shipped via thoroughfare in a transporter, will be unloaded at Kennedy Space Center. Integrating the abort motor is the first step in Orion’s LAS integration process.
Northrop Grumman’s next major abort motor milestone is the Ascent Abort-2 Flight Test (AA-2) set to take place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in early July. In addition to the launch abort motor, Northrop Grumman is providing the launch vehicle designed to simulate an SLS launch for AA-2. The abort will take place during Max-Q, when the dynamic pressure on the spacecraft is greatest.
Northrop Grumman is responsible for the launch abort motor through a contract to Lockheed Martin, Orion’s prime contractor. The Orion LAS program is managed out of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. Northrop Grumman produces the abort motor at its Magna, Utah facility and the attitude control motor for the LAS at the company’s Elkton, Maryland facility. The company also manufactures the composite case for the abort motor at its facility in Clearfield, Utah.
Technicians have completed construction on the spacecraft capsule structure that will return astronauts to the Moon, and have successfully shipped the capsule to Florida for final assembly into a full spacecraft. The capsule structure, or pressure vessel, for NASA’s Orion Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) spacecraft was welded together over the last seven months by Lockheed Martin technicians and engineers at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans.
Orion is the world’s only exploration-class spaceship, and the EM-2 mission will be its first flight with astronauts on board, taking them farther into the solar system than ever before.
«It’s great to see the EM-2 capsule arrive just as we are completing the final assembly of the EM-1 crew module», said Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin vice president and program manager for Orion. «We’ve learned a lot building the previous pressure vessels and spacecraft and the EM-2 spacecraft will be the most capable, cost-effective and efficient one we’ve built».
Orion’s pressure vessel is made from seven large, machined aluminum alloy pieces that are welded together to produce a strong, light-weight, air-tight capsule. It was designed specifically to withstand the harsh and demanding environment of deep space travel while keeping the crew safe and productive.
«We’re all taking extra care with this build and assembly, knowing that this spaceship is going to take astronauts back to the Moon for the first time in four decades», said Matt Wallo, senior manager of Lockheed Martin Orion Production at Michoud. «It’s amazing to think that, one day soon, the crew will watch the sun rise over the lunar horizon through the windows of this pressure vessel. We’re all humbled and proud to be doing our part for the future of exploration».
The capsule was shipped over the road from New Orleans to the Kennedy Space Center, arriving on Friday, August 24. Now in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building, Lockheed Martin technicians will immediately start assembly and integration on the EM-2 crew module.
The Lockheed Martin and NASA Orion team has successfully proof-pressure tested the Orion spacecraft’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) crew module. The crew module is the living quarters for astronauts and the backbone for many of Orion’s systems such as propulsion, avionics and parachutes.
In order to certify the structural integrity of the crew module it was outfitted with approximately 850 instruments and subjected to 1.25 times the maximum pressure the capsule is expected to experience during its deep space missions. That means about 20 pounds per square inch/137,895 pascals of pressure was distributed over the entire inner surface of the spacecraft trying to burst it from within. As a next step, the team will use phased array technology to inspect all of the spacecraft’s welds in order to ensure there are no defects.
Once the primary structure of the crew module has been verified, the team will begin the installation of secondary structures such as tubes, tanks and thrusters. Once those pieces are in place, the crew module will be moved into the clean room and the propulsion and environmental control and life support systems will be installed.
«Our experience building and flying Exploration Flight Test-1 has allowed us to improve the build and test process for the EM-1 crew module», said Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion vice president and program manager. «Across the program we are establishing efficiencies that will decrease the production time and cost of future Orion spacecraft».
During EM-1 Orion will be launched atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) for the first time. The test flight will send Orion into lunar distant retrograde orbit – a wide orbit around the moon that is farther from Earth than any human-rated spacecraft has ever traveled. The mission will last about three weeks and will certify the design and safety of Orion and SLS for future human-rated exploration missions.
Aurora Flight Sciences announced on July 14 that on July 1, 2015 the company received official notification from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) that its Orion aircraft set the world record for duration of flight for a remotely controlled Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The record was awarded based on the aircraft’s 80-hour, 2-minute and 52-second flight that took place December 5-8, 2014. The previous record for the same class of unmanned aircraft was just over 30 hours, set by a Global Hawk in 2001.
The National Aeronautic Association (NAA) also notified Aurora that the record-breaking Orion flight was being formally recognized by NAA as one of the most memorable aviation milestones of 2014. In 2014 the Orion record flight was also recognized by NAA in naming Orion as a finalist for the Collier Trophy, one of the world’s most distinguished aviation awards. Officials from NAA were on-hand to supervise and formally witness the Orion record-breaking flight in December, 2014.
«We’re thrilled to receive notification that FAI and NAA have officially recognized this groundbreaking development in unmanned flight», said Dr. John S. Langford, chairman and CEO of Aurora Flight Sciences. «The U.S. military put the challenge to Aurora to develop a long-endurance unmanned system that far exceeded the capabilities of existing technologies. Obviously, when taxpayer dollars are invested, the goal is not only to see if a long-endurance flight can be achieved, but to ultimately deploy the system in support of the American warfighter. We met and exceeded our customer’s requirements for the aircraft. The most important recognition for Orion will come when the aircraft is put to work meeting exactly what U.S. warfighter is calling for – unmanned, persistent surveillance of our enemies. We stand ready to meet this growing demand».
In recent months, demand from U.S. national security leaders for long-endurance, or «persistent», Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in an unmanned aircraft has been on the rise. Speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on June 10, 2015, House Defense Appropriations subcommittee chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen said, «We believe that a strong Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capability is a critical component of the Global War on Terrorism. And yet, a succession of combatant commanders has testified that only a fraction of their ISR requirements are being met, in essence, leaving them blind to the enemy’s activities, movements and intentions».
Aurora Flight Sciences is a world leader in design and manufacture of medium altitude, long-endurance unmanned and optionally piloted aircraft for military ISR requirements and a wide range of commercial applications. «It’s not every day that a U.S. government contractor is tasked with testing the existing boundaries of a given aviation threshold, only to shatter that threshold and establish a world record», said Langford. «The Orion platform certainly joins our Centaur aircraft as a pillar in Aurora’s growing suite of products that we believe will experience significant demand in the coming years».
The company’s Centaur optionally piloted, medium altitude, long-endurance aircraft, in service with customers including a European defense agency, also recently became the first large Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to fly in one of six Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test sites designed to prepare for integration in the U.S. national air space. The ability to fly manned or unmanned in the sovereign airspace of customer and neighboring countries is a unique capability that greatly reduces costs and logistics, and optimizes the aircraft’s time-on-mission.
«The global threat environment and related ISR requirements are evolving rapidly, and doing so in the context of deep budget cuts», said Dr. John S. Langford, chairman and CEO of Aurora. «Our go-to-market strategy is grounded in the basic notion of a customer-driven contracting approach. We’re doing traditional sale and lease agreements, as well as company-owned and operated deals that allow the government customer to focus more on the acquisition of information, as opposed to airplanes».
Orion Payload Options
Multi-Spectral Full Motion Video (FMV)
Wide Area Airborne Surveillance (WAAS)
Search And Rescue (SAR)/Dismount Moving Target Indication (DMTI)
Hyperspectral Video and Imaging
Line-Of-Sight (LOS) and Beyond Line-Of-Sight (BLOS) Communications Relay
Signals Intelligence (SIGNIT)
Maritime Domain Awareness radars
Foliage Penetration radars (FOPEN)
Onboard Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination (PED)
132 feet/40.23 m
50 feet/15.24 m
Gross Take-Off Weight (GTOW)
11,200 lbs/5,080 kg
Useful Payload Weight
2,600 lbs/1,179 kg
Useful Payload Space
146+ feet3/4.13+ m3
Dedicated Payload Power
11 kW (22 kW Option)
Dual FAA certified heavy-fuel engines
Triplex avionics for reliable operation
120 hours with 1,000 lbs/453.6 kg payload
3,476 NM/4,000 miles/6,437 km with 24 hours on-station