Tomorrow’s Abort Test

Here’s the story from Emilee Speck.

There’s no instantaneous launch window, and while launch weather looks good, recovery weather looks maybe iffy for the beginning of the window. I think the odds of it actually launching at the beginning of the window are sufficiently low that I’m not going to drag myself out of bed at 0430 on a Saturday morning to view it.

[Saturday-morning update]

I made the right choice; scrubbed for weather.

[Sunday noon update]

Looks like it went off without a hitch. Bob Zimmerman has some thoughts.


37 thoughts on “Tomorrow’s Abort Test”

  1. I’m planning on setting my DVR to record the whole launch window on NASA TV, exactly because I think slips are highly possible.

    I hope this test goes well. If it does, then when the flight hardware arrives at the Cape in a few weeks, we should have manned capability again. Of course, I expect red tape to stretch that to at least summer…

    1. I would have thought so too but Robert Zimmerman has a story quoting some NASA type talking about a manned test in March.

      1. A manned flight in March would be fantastic, and I hope it happens, but given the massive delays in CC I’ve grown very skeptical when it comes to such things. I will be delighted if I am wrong.

        1. If they don’t fly to ISS, what (practically speaking) could stop SpaceX from just putting two people in a capsule, going up into orbit, taking a few laps, and then coming back down?

  2. I’m just going to go ahead and criticize them because it’s a slow Saturday.

    I was shocked that they delayed the launch due to bad weather. It’s a launch abort test, for goodness sake. It’s supposed to have an in-flight abort! Are they afraid the abort would get aborted and it would end up in orbit? And what better time to lose a launch vehicle due to wind shear and say “See kids. That’s why we don’t launch in bad weather.”

    They’re supposed to abort at max Q, but if the Falcon breaks up due to severe-weather generated aerodynamic loads prior to max Q, the anomaly should go ahead and trigger an abort, under conditions that are worse than max Q! That would be a great test.

    And so what if there are high seas in the recovery area? Isn’t it a given that a capsule that makes an immediate ocean abort from orbit is going to have to come down in whatever seas it lands in? Maybe they should test recovery in really rough weather to verify that they’re prepared for such an event.

    Wouldn’t it make sense to have abort tests during horrible weather and cancel such tests in perfect weather? And how did we end up with rockets, developed from ICBMs, that can’t fly in bad weather? Surely our decades of nuclear deterrence wasn’t based on launching an overwhelming counter-strike “weather permitting.” Were our nuclear missile subs even supposed to do a weather check prior to launching?

    Let’s be honest. How can we talk about how bold our exploration is, and how brave our astronauts are, if they’re afraid to fly through a freakin’ cloud? That just won’t do. If if we’re going to make flying to space like flying on an airliner, and not one of those early open-cockpit VFR-only biplanes that sometimes managed to fly a passenger from A to B, then we’re going to need an all-weather launch capability.

    1. Apparently all weather is not in the CC specification. NASA is not big on a innovations outside the(ir) margins.
      But point well taken. In fact I think your biplane analogy is dead on to where we are in commercial crewed space flight today. Maybe even a little earlier in the wood and cloth construction period. But I have no fear, this is just
      another NASA anachronism that will eventually fall after a commercial provider has been flying their own people in NASA no go conditions for years. Hmm: Thought For The Day: Anachronism as a synonym for Administration? …

      1. As Elon and Bezos bring new rockets online and ramp up flight rates and adding orbital refueling and perhaps time-critical resupply missions, weather delays are an unnecessary complication they’d do well to dispense with to the greatest extent possible. A more robust airframe should of course increase the operating life of the launch vehicle, partially offsetting the performance penalty.

        But I’m wondering if the landing requirements will be more of a constraint than launch requirements? For the first stage those are bundled together into one decision, but Starship may find itself stuck in orbit for an extras day or two for weather delays, just like the Shuttle sometimes was.

    2. They weren’t afraid to fly through a cloud. They wanted good video of the abort system in action, and that’s hard to do if clouds are obstructing the view. There’s a difference between what is required for an operational mission and the requirements to get the best data during a test. As it turned out, today’s test was at the upper end of allowable sea conditions, making the test more rigorous than it might’ve been in better weather.

    1. Mercury, Apollo, Soyuz, and Shenzhou all had this capability. In fact, the Soyuz launch escape system has actually saved a few crews (most recently at high altitude due to a failed staging event). Starliner. which has flown once, has this capability, but not tested (and won’t be, unless…). Capability also planned for Orion. when/if it flies.

      Vostok, Gemini, and the first four flights of the Shuttle had ejection seats. Voskhod and the rest of Shuttle had nothing, but Vostok, Gemini, and Voskhod did have a plan to salvo their retro rockets to make a high altitude abort. Shuttle had various plans that relied on surviving until SRB burnout and having an intact orbiter, which didn’t work out so well.

        1. It should be noted that the Soyuz abort system has been used with the most recent incident happening October 2018.

      1. Good recap.

        Should be noted that Dragon and Starliner, because their abort systems are pusher systems integrated into the crew vehicles rather than launch towers, do provide full envelope abort capability, which was not true of those older pusher systems – once the tower was jettisoned, they had/have to rely on service module engines for any abort. This is, in fact what happened with Soyuz 18a in April 1975, when a stage separation failure 288 seconds into flight forced a hair-raising 21 G abort. (One of the cosmonauts, in fact, never fully recovered from the effects, it’s said.)

        The other nice thing is that Dragon and Starliner abort systems won’t be nearly as rough on the crews, providing considerably lower G forces.

        1. EDIT: I meant to say “puller systems,” not “pusher systems.” Launch tower systems are pullers; integrated abort thrusters like those on Dragon and Starliner are “pushers.”

    2. The big difference is that Dragon uses a liquid-fueled escape rocket, while I believe everything until now has used solid rockets. Originally it would have been used for landing instead of the traditional parachutes, but NASA didn’t want that. I’m guessing that, if SpaceX had known that before they designed it, they’d have stuck with a solid rocket system instead.

      1. Well, maybe. SpaceX had at least some modest experience with hypergolics; it had (and still has) no such experience with solid rockets. It is the sort of thing they’d probably have had to farm out to someone like ATK.

        1. Oh, I wouldn’t expect them to have built a solid rocket themselves, just bought it in from somewhere else. It’s not like they were ever going to need to build another.

          Interesting about Boeing; I hadn’t realized they’d gone the liquid route too. I’m surprised, because it means you have to carry all that now-useless fuel to orbit and back when you can dump a solid rocket early in the launch.

          1. In aviation, there’s a saying that goes, “The only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” The LES propellant on the SpaceX and Boeing capsules is available for orbital maneuvering if it isn’t needed for an abort. It can also provide an abort at any phase of the launch, where the old-style solid-propellant puller systems are jettisoned soon after second stage ignition. As the Soyuz has proven twice, you can still abort after the LES tower is jettisoned, it just seems to take a bit longer.

          2. Well, there is the question of an overweight landing, and there is this big how-dee-do over at the Professional Pilots’ Rumor Network of a crew of a Delta 777. They had engine trouble, was asked by air traffic control if they need to dump fuel and they said no, but then they dumped a bunch of fuel and sprinkled some Los Angeles school kids outside during Recess.

            There is a lot of discussion about how serious landing above your minimum landing weight really is. Doing that is something than can set you on fire when the brakes melt. On the other hand, ARFF (airport rescue and fire fighting) is close at hand to douse that fire, and if you are on fire to begin with, you really need to land right now, overweight or not.

  3. Someone noted this: ‘From the NYT: “SpaceX Launch Update: Rocket Destroyed in Crew Safety Test.”‘

    1. I’ve actually been waiting for similar headlines. I remember a few hyperventilating headlines about SpaceX Falcon 9s landing failures, with articles that didn’t bother to mention that the actual mission (getting the payload to the contracted orbit) had been 100% successful.

      1. Hey, “Rocket Destroyed” should always make the headlines, rather than being “Dog Bites Man”.

    2. I’m just smiling that such a headline is even noteworthy. The news didn’t care that the the Atlas rocket was lost in December. “That was supposed to happen. ” Indeed.

  4. A little pedantry here, as some of the things being said aren’t quite right. I’ll only touch on a few items.

    Soyuz has not one but two solid-fuel tractor escape systems. The tower has powerful, heavy motors responsible for 0/0 escapes (this happened once, back in the 70s) and through the end of Blok A flight, when the strap-ons and tower are jettisoned. There’s a second, lighter and smaller set of solids in the fairing which are responsible for escape during Blok B (“sustainer core”) flight. This is what fired during the recent high altitude abort (MS-10? I forget.) The spacecraft main engines are only responsible for escape during Block V flight, when the small upper stage is doing the final orbital insertion burn.

    Technically speaking, Dragon has a liquid fuel tractor escape system since the SuperDracos are mounted high on the outside of the capsule, above the full fuel tanks and well above the center of gravity.

    Starliner’s abort engines are mounted on the bottom of the expendable service module, so that is a liquid fuel pusher system. The engines and fuel are carried to orbit, but discarded before reentry. The Starliner capsule has an expendable backshell and heat shield, so the nice, clean spacecraft you see sitting on airbags in the desert was not actually exposed to reentry plasma.

    Apollo’s post tower jetison escape system was via the thruster quads and SPS engine, which makes it technically equivalant to Starliner. The only reason it couldn’t do a 0/0 abort is because the service module was loaded with something like 20 tons of TLI and TEI fuel. Orion will have essentially the same main engine, handed down from the Shuttle OMS pods. (Iirc, the AJ-10 is descended from the Titan III Transstage engine.)

    Interestingly (and uniquely, I think), New Shepard has a solid fuel pusher escape motor mounted *inside* the crew cabin tha fires through an opening in the heat shield.

      1. Zero altitude/zero speed. The requirement for a military ejection seat is that the pilot be able to eject safely while his ride is parked on the ground (or on the deck of a carrier!). For rockets, it’s an off the pad abort.

    1. The only reason it couldn’t do a 0/0 abort is because the service module was loaded with something like 20 tons of TLI and TEI fuel.

      Apollo was not capable of a pad abort?

      1. Call it pronoun antecedent failure. “It” refers to the CSM Service Propulsion System. Apollo had a solid fuel tractor tower responsible for 0/0 and first stage flight. It (the tower) was jetisoned immediately after second stage engine ignition verification, along with the forward aeroshell. After that, SPS and the thruster quads took over the escape function.

        SPS (a variant of the AJ-10 engine) was pressure fed hypergolic, so could presumably start as fast as the SuperDracos.

        I was reading up on the AJ-10 and was slightly surprised to find out it dates back to Vanguard, and was first flown on the third Vanguard flight, which launched Explorer 1. I probably knew that once upon a time, but forgot. AJ-10 is the ultimate Rockets Are So Legos component, flying on Vanguard, Thor-Able, Delta, Titan, Apollo, Shuttle, and now Orion (at least, I’m sure I forgot others). It’s right up there with H1/RS27 and RL10 for number of engines flown. (As far as I know, the most flown engine remains the V-2 powerplant, of which thousands were flown). I think the Merlin is catching up with, or even surpassing other western engines, since it must be passing the 800 mark now.

  5. On FB I told my former protege Brandon Litt-

    For many years I’ve said that I’m a rocket engineer, you’re not a rocket scientist until you’ve blown one up… so another congratulation, Brandon, that was rocket science with STYLE! 🙂

Comments are closed.