Exit Strategy

NASA’s new launch abort system just passed a major test. But what booster and capsule will use it?

Orion Integrated Vehicle PA-1 HD Stills from Frassanito and Associates (NASA)

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Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which plans to debut its own Falcon 9 rocket later this month, has yet to develop an abort system. Under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX have been receiving NASA money to develop ways to get cargo into low Earth orbit and to the International Space Station, followed later by astronauts. Orbital Sciences is already developing the Taurus II rocket and the Cygnus freighter, which conceivably could be human-rated at a later date. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has said that his company all along has designed the Falcon 9 to be human-rated. He says it would take about three years from the date of a contract signing to develop human-rating for the rocket, much of that work on an LAS. It’s possible that timeframe could be compressed if the Orion LAS could be tailored to work with Dragon, the SpaceX crew capsule.

But for now, the rocket that seems least likely to use the new abort system is the one it was designed for. Just as NASA’s Ares 1 was about to reach the launch pad, the project appears to be on permanent hold—one of the more dramatic aborts in the annals of space exploration.

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