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NASA EDGE: Orion Launch Abort System
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NASA EDGE: Orion Launch Abort System

Orion Launch Abort System (LAS)
Interviews and Guests
- Bryan Sullivan
- Henri Fuhrmann
- Mike Tosto
- Melissa Wang
- Heather Angel
- Kevin Rivers

No rocket motor test is complete without serious blast power. And the motor tests for Orion’s Launch Abort System (LAS) are no different. With three separate solid motors, the LAS packs a powerful, groundbreaking punch - for the sole purpose of providing safety for the Astronauts. NASA EDGE talks to program managers and engineers on the project to learn about the new and impressive technology being developed to make exploration as safe as possible. Unfortunately, there is no technology safe enough for the Co-host.


ANNOUNCER: Attention all personnel, this is the test control coordinator. We welcome you to the static test of the launch abort system’s motor ST-1. Prepare for countdown. T minus 60 seconds. High speed digital operators, start the VT 1432 recording system. T minus 40 seconds. T minus 30 seconds.

RON: 4, 3, 2…

FRANKLIN: You’re watching NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN: Welcome to the big show.

BLAIR: The first show of 2010.

FRANKLIN: First show of 2010. Guys, how are you doing?

CHRIS & BLAIR:: Great.

CHRIS: Good to be back in the studio again.

BLAIR: Comfortable. It’s a little cool, that’s why I’ve got the jacket. I’m feeling good.

FRANKLIN: I think it’s warm in here.

BLAIR: Yeah, which is kind of odd. Anyway, we do have a great show today. What are we going to talk about, Chris? We’re going to talk about the Launch Abort System.

CHRIS: The Orion Launch Abort System.

BLAIR: Good clarification.

CHRIS: Which is part of…

BLAIR: The Constellation Program.

CHRIS: That’s right. In fact we have a jammed packed show today Franklin. We’re going to be looking at the different components of the Launch Abort System. What is the Launch Abort System or LAS?

BLAIR: That’s LAS, Franklin, Launch Abort System.

FRANKLIN: Not Los Angeles.

CHRIS: We found that in the past years of covering the different tests that there are a lot of young engineers working on the Launch Abort System. We’re going to meet some of those today.

BLAIR: Sure.

CHRIS: Finally, we have a treat. We have Kevin Rivers who is the Project Manager for the Launch Abort System…

BLAIR: In studio.

CHRIS: In studio, which is based here at NASA Langley Research Center, will be here to give us an update on what’s been happening since those tests.

BLAIR: I don’t want to push things along but I’m really curious. We need to know what the Launch Abort System is.

CHRIS: I think Bryan from Orbital had a chance to take us along the Launch Abort System and explain the different components.

BLAIR: We got a tour of it during a test.

CHRIS: That’s right.

BLAIR: Let’s take a look.

BRYAN: What we’re doing today is what’s called a modal test. We’re trying to find out how stiff or how flexible the vehicle is. That’s important to the guys who are trying to fly the vehicle.

CHRIS: So essentially it is a vibration test?

BRYAN: Exactly. This is the adapter cone.

CHRIS: This is what is attached to the crew module.

BRYAN: Right. For this test the crew module is important, so we have this crew module simulator here. It’s about 17,000 lbs. of steel welded together. It simulates the mass of the crew module.

BLAIR: Right. Not the look of the crew module because I did not recognize it at all.

BRYAN: No, it’s pretty ugly.

BLAIR: It’s utilitarian but functional.

BRYAN: That’s right.

CHRIS: The next sectional we have here is of the abort motor.

BRYAN: Right. The adapter cone comes up here. It handles ¾ of a million pounds of force. This motor is exactly like the flight motor except there’s no propellant in it. We use rubber in it to get the same mass but we don’t want to take the risk here, just ground test.

BLAIR: Plus with all the vibration you don’t want to take unnecessary risk.

BRYAN: That’s right.

BLAIR: Did you feel that Chris?

CHRIS: I did.

BLAIR: Because you don’t see it shake much but literally, you could feel it on the last one up here.

BRYAN: I think he’s getting a little worried.

BLAIR: Yeah.

BRYAN: From here up to here is the jettison motor.

CHRIS: Okay.

BRYAN: When we do an abort and we’re finished with the launch abort system or in the event of what we always hope to be a normal launch, we’ve got to get this thing off so the crew module can continue to orbit. That’s what this is used for. The propellant is in here and there are four nozzles. You can see one covered by some plastic to keep water out.

BLAIR: And nesting animals.

CHRIS: That’s interesting. You have the abort motor with the solid propellant down sort of like a reverse flow.

BRYAN: Exactly.

CHRIS: For this jettison motor you have a small amount of propellant.

BRYAN: That’s right. It’s on the order of 600 lbs, about 40,000 lbs. of thrust. Again, it doesn’t take a lot to get it off the vehicle and out of the way.

BLAIR: Because It’s not carrying the 17,000 lbs of…

BRYAN: That’s right, 17,000 lb crew module.

BLAIR: Yes. You’re carrying much less. It’s like you guys actually planned this.

CHRIS: It’s genius, isn’t it?

BLAIR: It so simple yet true.

CHRIS: And of course we have the attitude control motors here.

BRYAN: What you see is 8 valves. Here they are simulated but on the real thing there are 8 valves that will allow 3,000 degree Fahrenheit gas to come out of the various nozzles. For example, if we want to pitch the vehicle a certain direction, what we actually do is half way through the abort we’ll flip around so the Launch Abort System comes off and we leave the crew module flying heat shield forward ready for entry.

BLAIR: I didn’t think of that.

CHRIS: From the abort motors, the jettison and attitude control adjusters, are you using the same type of solid propellant for each one?

BRYAN: Very similar. Each one has different recipes but essentially it is the same material.

BLAIR: Recipes. That’s an interesting term. You have people in a rocket kitchen formulating their…

CHRIS: There is a science to cooking.

BLAIR: That’s true. We’ve learned that.

BRYAN: For the abort motor they have this huge mixer that they put all the materials in. They took the design for a bread mixer from a kitchen and they scaled it up and that is how they mix their propellants.

BLAIR: Do they toss it like the pizza dough?


CHRIS: No, okay.

BLAIR: Ah well, can’t get ‘em all right.

CHRIS: The cool thing about this is this is probably the most state of the art Launch Abort System ever made. We’re actually seeing the first model here.

BRYAN: That’s right.

BLAIR: And they let me in. Are you going to be the one that actually pushes the button?

BRYAN: I wish. I wish.

BLAIR: Do they have an in-house lotto for that or how does that work?

BRYAN: The computer always wins.

CHRIS: You are part of something that is going to save the crew’s lives but hopefully will never be used.

BRYAN: That’s right.

CHRIS: In that capacity. It will be jettisoned of course but in terms of an actual abort…

BRYAN: Right. That’s something that really hit home with me in the very beginning is that we will probably save the lives of the crew at some point. We hope it’s never used but history has shown us that it’s very probable that this will be used someday. And to know that when that crew comes back, I think about their kids and I’m responsible for bringing their parents home to them. That’s very rewarding to me.

BLAIR: Yeah.

FRANKLIN: Wow! That was a pretty interesting segment. Bryan had a lot to share with you guys.

BLAIR: It’s just amazing for me to think all these components are involved in the Launch Abort System. How many motors are on there? Well, lots of motors, parts of other motors. It’s a motor fest. It’s like a muscle car convention.

CHRIS: Don’t forget you have the abort motor, the jettison motor, and the attitude control low motors.

BLAIR: Yes, which is actually a collection of motors. And then there’s the other four…

CHRIS: But remember guys this is the system that will protect the astronauts in case something happens either at the pad or in ascent.

BLAIR: Or the real threat of one.

CHRIS: That’s right. That’s the key. Let’s take a break. When we come back we’re going to talk about some of the engineers who are actually working on the Launch Abort System, some of the young engineers.

BLAIR: And how all these systems come together, how they all have been brought to where they are now.

CHRIS: You’re watching NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.


RON: 4, 3, 2…

CHRIS: Welcome back to NASA EDGE.

BLAIR: Continuing our discussion of the Orion Launch Abort System. The big question I had coming out of our last segment, hearing Brian’s explanation was great but there was the motor test out at ATK, which is one place out in Utah, then the modal test at Orbital, which is in northern Virginia. All these things are happening all over the place. How does this all come together? How does this all fit together so it will be the Launch Abort System?

FRANKLIN: It’s just like building a football team. You have to get your best receivers’ coach. You have to get your best defensive coordinator. You have to pull them all together and that’s how you come up with a good, winning, strong team.

CHRIS: That’s true. That’s a great point. In terms of looking at NASA and the Launch Abort System, the project management is here at NASA Langley Research Center, and of course we have a prime contractor, which is Lockheed Martin. Also we have ATK as a subcontractor with Orbital and there are other contractors below them. We have a lot of people working on this particular piece of hardware.

BLAIR: I’m just confused. Is it NFC East or is it the AFC? Are there any un-drafted picks?

FRANKLIN: NASA just put together a team of ringers.

CHRIS: That’s right.

BLAIR: Actually, that’s an excellent point, Franklin. We met some of these people; these players if you will that are on the team out at ATK and Orbital. They did a pretty good job. You get a sense that they in there getting their hands dirty and progressing nicely.

CHRIS: But just like the football teams you have your veteran engineers and then you have to draft some young engineers for the team.

BLAIR: That’s right.

CHRIS: You have to mentor them along so they become eventually veterans.

BLAIR: Clearly, NASA is confident to play some rookies.

CHRIS: We had a chance to talk to some of the young engineers that are working on the Launch Abort System.

BLAIR: Yes. And before we roll the video, note one thing about these engineers, these younger engineers and what not, no slide rules. I didn’t see one slide rule. Check it out.

HENRI: Right now, we’re doing a test on the Launch Abort System configuration to see what the natural frequency is of the vehicle. It’s important that we’re able to correlate our analysis models with the actual, as built configuration. What we’re going to be doing here is shaking the vehicle, taking a lot of measurements, and correlating that with our math models and analysis models to make sure all our predictions are accurate.

CHRIS: We want to make sure this particular Launch Abort System doesn’t match the natural frequency of the spacecraft.

HENRI: That’s exactly right. The Launch Abort System has its own natural frequency. All structures do. You want to make sure that frequency doesn’t couple with the launch vehicle or the spacecraft.

BLAIR: Like when you hit the right note and the glass is shattered?

HENRI: Exactly. I’m sure you’ve done that.

CHRIS: That’s a good analogy.

CHRIS: When you assemble the Launch Abort System, did you start from the adaptor cone and work your way up?

MELISSA: We actually started with the abort motor and jettison motor first. The abort motor is sitting on one adjustable dolly and one fixed dolly. We want to mate it to the jettison motor that’s also on the adjustable dolly. That way if those two are mated we can lower the fixed dolly and adjust the entire structure to test structure.

CHRIS: Interesting.

CHRIS: Test director in only six months?

MIKE: Yeah.

CHRIS: How do you get to be Test Director of a modal test in six months?

MIKE: I don’t know. I just got really lucky.

CHRIS: He’s only a co-host and it’s been over two years.

CHRIS: What is involved in terms of being a test director? What do you have to go through in terms of checklists?

MIKE: A lot of what I did was planning. I had to make sure all of our test plans were all worked out and everyone who needs to review them have seen them. We all agree these are the things we are planning on doing. This is the way we’re going to do it and these are the steps we’re going to take. Make sure everyone is in agreement these are things we really can and want to be doing.

HEATHER: I’m a propulsion engineer working on the abort motor, which is the main motor on the Launch Abort System.

CHRIS: Heather, we’ve done some research on you. We noticed you played basketball.

HEATHER: Yeah. I did. I played for two years as a forward at a division 2 school called Colorado School of Mines.

CHRIS: How does being a propulsion engineer compare to being a forward on a basketball team?

HEATHER: There are a lot of similar qualities between the two. Everyone on a basketball team has a different position and plays a different role on the team. It’s really the same thing in engineering and on the Orion program because everyone has a different skill and different quality they can offer to the team.

BLAIR: Any bench clearing brawls come up on the engineering side?

HEATHER: You know I haven’t been able to use those skills yet. I’m still working on that.

CHRIS: No technical fouls?

BLAIR: Everyone drop your protractors and go to your corners.

CHRIS: None of that?

HEATHER: No. Yeah but no I haven’t.

CHRIS: So tell me Franklin, do you think Blair can dunk on Heather?

FRANKLIN: No, he’s not even close.

BLAIR: First of all, Heather and I had an opportunity… I actually challenged her, in basketball, one on one…

CHRIS: To a game of Orion.

BLAIR: Yes, to a game of Orion out at ATK but unfortunately the schedules conflicted. I’ve been stepping up my game. Franklin has been showing me some pointers. She’s in trouble if we ever meet again.

BLAIR: By the way Heather, if you’re watching the show and I know you do, game on next time we meet.

CHRIS: I tell you what…

BLAIR: No wait. You had an interesting observation.

CHRIS: What’s that?

BLAIR: The pockets.

CHRIS: Oh, the pockets. Yeah. We had these ATK and Orbital… what do you call those, smocks?

BLAIR: Yeah. I’m trying to think of a more manly word but it’s just not happening.

CHRIS: The pockets were cool.

CHRIS: How often do you find yourself in this position, with your hands in the pockets?

MIKE: Oh, all the time.

CHRIS: I really like the outfit.

HENRI: The lab coats?

CHRIS: The lab coats. You find your hands in the perfect position.

CHRIS: How many hours of the day are you in this position?

MELISSA: In this position? [laughing]

HENRI: This is part of safety. Keep your hands away from touching any of the hardware.

CHRIS: The way the pockets were designed in the smocks was just at the right angle and the right position. I felt like a doctor the whole time.

MIKE: Pencils are key too.

BLAIR: Doctor. Doctor.

CHRIS: Back to serious for a couple minutes. These young engineers, just imagine, they are working on a multi-million dollar piece of hardware.

BLAIR: It’s quite a rookie class NASA has out there.

CHRIS: Yeah. And of course, I wouldn’t put Henry in that class. You said he was the Brett Favre of the people we interviewed.

BLAIR: He’s seasoned. He’s a little more seasoned. I wonder if every year they say, I wonder if Henry is going to retire?

[all laughing]

FRANKLIN: He couldn’t lead his team to victory. I’m sure he probably will.

BLAIR: Hey, you never know.

CHRIS: Just think what these young engineers are doing now. When we eventually go back to the moon, Mars and beyond or to another asteroid.

BLAIR: Franklin, you saw. You could hear the enthusiasm. They’re excited about being part of the space program and about what eventually will become a return to the moon.

CHRIS: Right.

FRANKLIN: I’m sure this is exactly what it looked like with your veteran engineers now, what they looked like back during the beginning of the Apollo program. They were all excited, fresh out of school, engineers working on a project. These kids are going to be working on this project probably for the rest of their lives.

BLAIR: Let’s hope so because they’re quality folks. You can’t let them get away. You have to lock them up with a long-term deal.

CHRIS: I understand, heard Ron in my earpiece, Rivers is here. He’s ready to go. Let’s take a break. When we come back we’ll get an update on the Launch Abort System and see where we’re heading.

BLAIR: Where it is currently.

CHRIS: Currently and the future.

BLAIR: And the next few months. You’re watching NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

TEST COORDINATOR: T minus 15 seconds. T minus 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Fire.



RON: 4, 3, 2, ….

CHRIS: Welcome back to NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN: We have in the studio today Kevin “Doc” Rivers, the Program Manager for LAS.

CHRIS: I like that, “Doc.”


BLAIR: We’ve been mixing our sports metaphors a lot here today. Also, do not be thrown by the incredibly hot looking smock I am wearing. These were the ones Chris talked about with the perfect pockets. This was in your honor.

CHRIS: How did you get hold of one?

BLAIR: I can’t really talk about that. But ATK, don’t worry it will be returned to you.

CHRIS: I’m going to call Trina right after the show.

BLAIR: No, no, no, no. Don’t call Trina. She won’t let me come back.

CHRIS: Kevin, thank you for coming on the set with us this morning.

KEVIN: Chris, thanks for having me. Good to be here.

CHRIS: Over the course of the show we’ve been talking about the Launch Abort System and giving a look at a couple of the tests over the past year but we want to know what has been going on with LAS recently and as we look towards the future as well.

KEVIN: The main focus we have been emphasizing over the last year is to develop our attitude control motor, ACM. The ACM is the motor that is on the very tip of the Launch Abort System. This is the motor that actually drives the Launch Abort System through the trajectory that it flies in the event that we have to abort.

BLAIR: Which was confusing for me, when I heard attitude control, I had flashbacks to many disciplinary moments that I went through in my life. What does that actually mean, the attitude control?

KEVIN: Attitude as in orientation, not attitude as in bad attitude.

BLAIR: Gotcha.

CHRIS: Let me get this straight. I want to clarify for the audience out there. You have three sets of motors. You have the abort motor, which is the ones you see here, then you have the jettison motor and the attitude control motor.

KEVIN: That’s right.

CHRIS: In case there is an abort at the pad or in ascent, the first motor that will fire off is the abort motor?

KEVIN: That’s correct. In the event that there was some kind of anomaly that was sensed by the system in the Orion that makes the decision whether or not to abort. The abort motor would light. Then immediately after that the attitude control motor would engage and then begin to direct the vehicle as it’s accelerated away from the rocket onto an appropriate trajectory. So it can move out and get away from the explosion or event that has occurred, then it reorients the vehicle. It’s flying away from the rocket then it will turn the rocket around so it can prepare to eject the capsule out of the bottom of it.

CHRIS: Then the jettison motors would fire off and the Launch Abort System would shoot off?

KEVIN: Once it’s reoriented and ready to go then the jettison motor fires and releases the capsule.

BLAIR: Off to safety.

KEVIN: Off to safety.

FRANKLIN: What is the response time for that system to react compared to that of an impact of a car and an airbag would deploy?

KEVIN: I would assume it is a little faster than an airbag deploying. It’s milliseconds for it to begin to work.


BLAIR: Milliseconds till a thrill ride you won’t forget.


CHRIS: Out of those three motors, I understand the attitude control motors are an engineering novelty. It’s one of a kind.

KEVIN: Yes. There are eight valves going around the periphery of the rocket. Each one of those valves can be opened or closed at the same time. This is one of a kind. It’s the first of its kind. It’s not the first solid rocket motor but it is a solid rocket as the other motors are. We do that so we can try to be relatively environmental because the liquid systems we might use are hazardous. And if we don’t use this system it gets dumped into the ocean. We don’t want to be poisoning the ocean. We do this with a solid, which is pretty inert.

CHRIS: It’s green.

KEVIN: Yeah, pretty much. There are motors like this in existence but they’re smaller. There’s nothing ever been built of this thrust class, which is about 7,000 lbs of thrust in any one direction. It’s at least in order of magnitude bigger than anything else that’s ever been built. It’s a very complicated motor. I would even say difficult.

CHRIS: But you have had some successful tests with that motor.

KEVIN: Yes, we have. Actually we have performed in a lot of hot fire tests where we took one valve and fired it. And then most recently in December of 2009, we actually fired a development motor, which is full scale test with a full scale motor with all eight valves. They were all active and operating. Essentially what we were doing was demonstrating that we could command thrust in any direction. That it’s thrusting on one side and then flipping to the other side. The test concludes with a really neat round robin demonstrating all of the valves operating at their full thrust capability. It looks a little like a lawn sprinkler or flamethrower when you watch it. You see the plumes moving around the motor during the test. It’s really neat to see.

FRANKLIN: What’s up next for the LAS testing system?

KEVIN: All of this has been leading to what we’re calling Pad Abort 1, which is the first flight test for Orion. Most of our work has been focused in on developing the hardware to do that test, like the attitude control motor, as well as getting ready to be sure we’re going to have a successful test. We’ve spent a lot of time, most recently in the last couple of months focusing on verifying that the design is actually going to perform as we designed it.

CHRIS: That is so cool. We’re going to be there at the White Sands Missile Range to cover Pad Abort 1 later this year.

BLAIR: It’s kind of interesting because when that test takes place you’re testing not just one system but obviously all three stages.


BLAIR: In one test, which will be quite impressive.

CHRIS: Cool. Thank you Kevin for taking time to come out here today. I know you’re a very busy man. We can’t wait till Pad Abort 1 coming up later this year.

BLAIR: You’ll be at Pad Abort 1, correct?

KEVIN: I’ll be there. I look forward to talking with you there.

CHRIS: Talk to you then.

BLAIR: Great.

CHRIS: You’re watching NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

BLAIR: That should be fantastic.

CHRIS: That ACM is pretty cool technology.

BLAIR: Yes, it is.

FRANKLIN: Can Blair get a ride?

BLAIR: I hope so.

CHRIS: In your 40, 50, 60+ years with the agency depending on how you look at it.

BLAIR: It’s got to be 60. It’s just me.

CHRIS: What are some of the defining moments in your career?

BARRY: Working with Orville Wright was the high spot of my career.

BLAIR: Incidentally, he said the same thing about you.

BARRY: We were always very close.

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