Orion test module headed to Johnson Space Center to be prepped for test of emergency systems

President Donald Trump wants to launch Orion, the spacecraft designed to transport humans beyond the moon in 2022, but NASA officials first must make sure astronauts can escape in case of emergency.

The space agency will be one step closer to that goal on Friday when the simplified crew module for the vehicle arrives at Johnson Space Center.

This module was designed specifically for the test of Orion’s launch abort system — basically, a way for the crew to escape in case of emergency — scheduled for April 2019.

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Before its trip to Johnson, the module was at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., where it was weighed and balanced. The module must have the same shape and approximate mass distribution of the real Orion so that the abort tests are accurate. When completed, Orion will weigh about 22,000 pounds.

Johnson will now begin outfitting the module with systems necessary to execute the test, which will last less than three minutes. When it is launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., next year, the module will reach an average maximum speed of 1,020 mph.

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“This will be the only time we test a fully active Launch Abort System during ascent before we fly crew, so verifying that it works as predicted, in the event of an emergency, is a critical step before we put astronauts onboard,” said Don Reed, manager of the Orion Program’s Flight Test Management Office. “No matter what approach you take, having to move a 22,000-pound vehicle away quickly from a catastrophic event, like a potential rocket failure, is extremely challenging.”

Orion plays a large role in Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal for NASA, which focuses on a robust human exploration program. In the $19.9 billion proposal, Trump tasks NASA with launching an unmanned flight of Orion in 2022, following by a launch of Americans around the moon in 2023.

The budget still must be approved by Congress.

Alex Stuckey covers NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at alex.stuckey@chron.com or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.

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