They say you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, and there are few fields where this idiom is better exemplified than rocketry. It’s a forgone conclusion that when you develop a new booster, at least a few test articles are going to be destroyed in the process. In fact, some argue that a program that doesn’t push the hardware to the breaking point is a program that’s not testing aggressively enough.
This might seem like an odd way to spend $62 million, but for SpaceX, it’s worth it to know that the Crew Dragon Launch Abort System (LES) will work under actual flight conditions. The LES has already been successfully tested once, but that was on the ground and from a standstill. It allowed engineers to see how the system would behave should an abort occur while the rocket was still on the pad, but as the loss of the Soyuz MS-10 dramatically demonstrated, astronauts may need to make a timely exit from a rocket that’s already well on the way to space.
In an actual emergency, the crewed spacecraft will very likely be speeding away from a violent explosion and rapidly expanding cloud of shrapnel. The complete destruction of the Falcon 9 that will be carrying the Crew Dragon during Saturday’s test will serve to create the same sort of conditions the spacecraft will need to survive if the LES has any hope of bringing the crew home safely. So even if there was some way to prevent the booster from breaking up during the test, it’s more useful from an engineering standpoint to destroy it.
Of course, that only explains why the Falcon 9 will be destroyed during this test. But exactly how this properly functioning booster will find itself being ripped to pieces high over the Atlantic Ocean in a matter of seconds is an equally interesting question.
Throughout the history of America’s human spaceflight program, there’s been an alternating pattern in regards to abort systems. From Alan Shepard’s first flight in 1961 on, every Mercury capsule was equipped with a Launch Escape System (LES) tower that could pull the spacecraft away from a malfunctioning rocket. But by the first operational flight of the Gemini program in 1965, the LES tower had been deleted in favor of ejection seats. Just three years later, the LES tower returned for the first manned flight of the Apollo program.
With the Space Shuttle, things got more complicated. There was no safe way to separate the Orbiter from the rest of the stack, so when Columbia made its first test flight in 1981, NASA returned again to ejection seats, this time pulled from an SR-71 Blackbird. But once flight tests were complete, the ejector seats were removed; leaving Columbia and all subsequent Orbiters without any form of LES. At the time, NASA believed the Space Shuttle was so reliable that there was no need for an emergency escape system.
In the post-Shuttle era, NASA has made it clear that maintaining abort capability from liftoff to orbital insertion is a critical requirement. Their own Orion spacecraft has this ability, and they demand the same from commercial partners such as SpaceX and Boeing. But while all three vehicles are absolutely bristling with high-tech wizardry, their abort systems are not far removed from what we were using in the 1960’s.
Let’s take a look at the Launch Escape Systems for America’s next three capsules, and see where historical experience helped guide the design of these state-of-the-art spacecraft.
In the coming decades, mankind will walk on the moon once again. Right now, plans are being formulated for space stations orbiting around Lagrange points, surveys of lava tubes are being conducted, and slowly but surely plans are being formed to build the hardware that will become a small scientific outpost on our closest celestial neighbor.
This has all happened before, of course. In the early days of the Apollo program, there were plans to launch two Saturn V rockets for every moon landing, one topped with a command module and three astronauts, the other one containing an unmanned ‘LM Truck’. This second vehicle would land on the moon with all the supplies and shelter for a 14-day mission. There would be a pressurized lunar rover weighing thousands of pounds. This wouldn’t exactly be a Lunar colony, instead, it would be more like a small cabin in the Arctic used as a scientific outpost. Astronauts and scientists would land, spend two weeks researching and exploring, and return to Earth with hundreds of pounds of samples.
With this, as with all Apollo landings, came a risk. What would happen if the ascent engine didn’t light? Apart from a beautiful speech written by William Safire, there was nothing concrete for astronauts consigned to the deepest of the deep. Later in the Apollo program, there was a plan for real hardware to bring stranded astronauts home. This was the Lunar Escape System (LESS), basically two chairs mounted to a rocket engine.
While the LESS was never built, several studies were completed in late 1970 by North American Rockwell detailing the hardware that would return two astronauts from the surface of the moon. It involved siphoning fuel from a stricken Lunar Module, flying to orbit with no computer or really any instrumentation at all, and performing a rendezvous with an orbiting Command Module in less than one Lunar orbit.