Remember back in August, in the blog NASA: history and future, when we reminisced about NASA, its past, and where it was headed? Well there is a new update that has spread beyond just NASA. Referencing “Apollo 13” again, as the rocket takes off, Tom Hank’s character repeatedly glances at the abort lever. It never occurred to me, so I don’t know how many of you out there knew that after the Apollo series of rockets, NASA stopped including an abort option for the shuttles! Well, NASA got the news flash, and the abort option is back in action.

How did the abort in a launching rocket work?

The fact that the top of the both the Mercury and Apollo rockets look pointed is not designed for just aerodynamics. It is the housing that attaches to the compartment with the astronauts in it, so that if Tom Hank’s character had decided to use that lever, a separate rocket would have launched behind the astronauts pulling them away from the treacherous launch and, using a parachute inside, would have lowered them to safety. The Russian rockets have always had abort options, but they were activated from the ground, not by the astronauts themselves, which when reevaluated by NASA today, seemed inappropriate since it would be the people inside the rocket that would be the most aware of any danger.

That is why NASA, and other rocket creating companies like SpaceX and Boeing, are making sure to reinvent the abort capability in the new rockets intended for Mars and asteroids.

How does the abort system from the Apollo days compare to today’s models?

The Apollo style abort was a rocket that fired the escape pod a mile in one direction before parachutes opened to allow the pod to drift back to earth. It was not designed for space at all. That is probably why Tom Hank’s character stopped glancing at it once they were in space. By then, there was no going back, as the entire Apollo 13 mission has proven.

space capsuleToday NASA, SpaceX, and Boeing are all creating their own version of an escape capsule that is far more advanced:

  • The rocket is more powerful
  • The capsule is maneuverable
  • The capsule is more insulated and required by NASA to meet a much greater life-saving standard

NASA is heading up the coordination of the rockets that are now being used to move goods and people back and forth to the space station, but they have had a great set back where a cargo rocket exploded. They are putting everything on hold until they determine what caused the explosion and correct it. They speculate two whole years before they will be launching another similar rocket. What that means for flight beyond the space station including SpaceX, Boeing, and the Russians is yet to be seen.