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NASA to Test Fly Astronaut Escape Ship Alternative

A bullet-shaped escape ship could show how astronauts might avoid a launch disaster during a planned launch test. And that's just the alternate escape system for NASA's Constellation astronauts headed back to the moon.

The Max Launch Abort System (MLAS) is slated to blast off to an altitude of about one mile up, as part of an escape system test scheduled for June 20 at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The test was delayed from a June 15 launch target to allow extra rocket checks, NASA officials said.

The flight test includes the MLAS escape vehicle, as well as a full-scale mockup of the Orion capsule, NASA's space shuttle replacement, tucked inside. If all goes well, the crew capsule will eventually separate from the test vehicle and parachute down into the Atlantic Ocean — hopefully without problems similar to those that plagued an earlier Orion parachute test that crashed to Earth.

The MLAS design differs from the escape system for Orion and the Constellation Program, which uses a single rocket motor in a tower positioned above the Orion crew capsule to help propel astronauts to safety.

A recent U.S. Air Force studies have questioned whether Orion's current escape system can propel astronauts safely away from a launch explosion. NASA has said that supercomputer analyses will show that the launch abort system can work.

"MLAS is a technology demonstrator not intended as a replacement for the Orion LAS [Launch Abort System]," said Keith Henry, a NASA spokesperson, in response to a SPACE.com query.

Instead, the project is slated to help the NASA Engineering and Safety Center gain experience conducting flight tests. That independently-funded branch of the U.S. space agency is located at Langley Research Center in Virginia.

MLAS consists of a flight test vehicle which weighs over 45,000 pounds and stands over 33 feet tall, resembling a white bullet with stubby fins. That vehicle is designed to house the Orion crew capsule which astronauts would ride in during launch aboard an Ares I rocket.

Four solid rocket motors would fire to boost the MLAS flight test vehicle away from danger during a theoretical launch pad emergency. For the upcoming flight test, the same rocket motors will launch the MLAS system from the ground, instead of from the top of a larger rocket.

The estimated cost for MLAS comes to about $30 million, Henry noted.

NASA's MLAS Web site notes the possibility of "re-contact" between different parts of the test vehicle after all parachutes have deployed, because MLAS has supposedly not been calibrated for weight and parachute performance. The space agency does not expect any midair collisions during the planned launch to affect either the test data or Orion's differently designed escape system.

NASA's Constellation program is developing the Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets to replace the space shuttle fleet, which is set to retire in 2010. NASA plans to launch the first operational Orion flights in 2015, with a target of returning humans to the moon by 2020.

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