Launch abort motor for NASA’s Orion project tested in northern Utah

PROMONTORY, Utah -- A launch abort motor was tested Thursday at Orbital ATK near Promontory in northern Utah.

The motor is intended for use with the Orion spacecraft designed by NASA.

The motor reaches 400,000 pounds of thrust in an eighth of a second. And although things went well Thursday, scientists hope they never have to use it.

“We hope that it never has to be used, but just like an ejection seat in a fighter pilot's aircraft, if they need it, they need it then and it needs to work every time,” said Steve Sara, Launch Abort Director for Orbital ATK.

This rocket is actually a motor that would be used in the launch abort system on the Orion rocket.

If something goes wrong on the launch pad and the astronauts had to escape from the larger rocket motor, they would fire the abort rocket.

“This is an extra level of safety we're happy to see in our new rockets,” said NASA astronaut Rex Walheim.

Orion is designed to send astronauts into deep space and return them to earth. The hope is to send humans to asteroids and even to Mars.

But safety is the priority.

“We view this as a very important safety system for the astronauts; if they do need it, then it will work,” Sara said.

The motor tested Thursday is more than 17 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter. It has four nozzles that direct the thrust, and it’s designed to take the crew up to 300,000 feet high.

It’s a feature that was not on the shuttles.

“With the space shuttle we could do certain aborts, but with the space shuttle you're obviously on the side of the propulsion system,” Walheim said. “You're tied to the external tank, and so if something happens to the tank you can't get away as easily, so it's very difficult.”

It's something NASA hopes it never has to use, but if it does prove necessary then they'll be ready.

NASA hopes to send Orion on a large orbit around the moon in 2019. The mission will last about 25 days, and there will be no crew aboard. However, NASA aims to send a crew into space on Orion sometime in the 2020s.