PA1


This morning, I got to work early to watch PA1.

Sexy, huh?

You may not even have heard about PA1. Not one of NASA’s most high-profile missions. Definitely not as big as a space shuttle launch. Heck, it wasn’t even Ares I-X caliber.

PA1 was the Orion Pad Abort 1 test. The test demonstrated the Launch Abort System developed for the Orion/Ares stack. If something went wrong during launch, the LAS would carry the crew, aboard the Orion spacecraft, safely away from the launch vehicle. For PA1, an Orion mock-up, with attached LAS, was sitting on the ground and the abort system was fired, boosting the capsule to an altitude of over a mile.

It was spectacular.

The test was shown on a large screen in an auditorium at Marshall, a special event not done for most launches, so it was a great privilege to get to see it, not only on a big screen, but also with a small crowd of fellow members of the NASA team.

There were three rounds of applause in the auditorium during the test. The first was pretty obvious — launch of the Orion/LAS stack. It happened ridiculously fast; there was a flash, and the picture flickered, and it was gone. It switched to a wider angle camera, but by then, the stack had already flown out of that view, too. Finally, they caught up with it, and we watched it soar.

I should point out here the power involved in this test. The solid rocket motor in the LAS burned for less than seven seconds, but during that time, it packed quite a punch — half a million pounds of thrust. In comparison, yesterday marked the 49th anniversary of Alan Shepard making the first U.S. manned spaceflight atop a Redstone rocket that produced about 83,000 pounds of thrust. Even the Titan II rocket used for the two-person Gemini orbital missions generated less thrust than the PA1 LAS. Now, the fact that it burned at that power for only seconds means the LAS is far short of being comparative to the Titan, but it’s still an incredibly powerful motor — and it’s goal isn’t to put astronauts into space, but to get them away from danger FAST, which it would definitely do.

Skipping ahead, the last round of applause was pretty obvious, too — the successful end of the test; the capsule drifting safely back down to the ground.

The middle round of applause was a little more interesting. There had been failures during Constellation parachute tests before, and, after the initial adrenaline rush of the launch, the focus became on whether the mock-up’s recovery system would work properly. The audience wasn’t sure exactly when that was supposed to happen, so there was briefly bated breath as people worried that it wasn’t working. When we saw that the chutes deployed, the relief translated quickly into applause.

But — I couldn’t help wondering … was there more to it than that? Yeah, it was exciting that the system worked properly. But it was an interesting sight, that flattened-gumdrop cone-shape dangling from the parachutes. There was something very familiar about it. From a distance, it looked like something you would see in historical footage or a Tom Hanks movie. But this wasn’t a recording of something that happened in the late ’60s or early ’70s. This was happening right then. And that? That was kind of cool.

I’ll admit. I had my moment of doubt at the end of the test. The system works. Ares I-X in October demonstrated the merits of the architecture, and PA1 demonstrated it again. The technology from Constellation that has been tested, has been tested successfully. Yes, there have been problems, like the aforementioned Orion parachute tests. But that’s why you test. To find them bugs and fix them. And today, they sure looked fixed. So, in the moment, it seemed a shame to throw away something that seems to be working.

But that’s not the point. You don’t stop with what you’ve proved you can do, if you believe you can do something more. The switch from Constellation to the new program isn’t about a lack of faith in the Constellation technology. It’s about trying to accomplish something greater. The work done on Constellation, including the lessons learned today from PA1, will pave the way for that.

And, for me, the greatest lesson was this. This IS NASA. I’ve written before about what an honor it is to wear the badge. And today was definitely one of those days. But it’s bigger than that. Few people knew or cared what the agency did today. PA1 really isn’t that sexy. It’s not a big deal.

How amazing is that? NASA launched a rocket with more thrust than the boosters that sent the first Americans into orbit, and then safely recovered a capsule in an Apollo-esque descent, and it’s just not a big deal. The agency does stuff that awesome as an aside. NASA is that good.

The time has arrived to take that potential, and really set it loose. It was exciting to watch the small-scale results of that expertise and brilliance this morning. Now let’s apply that expertise to something worthy of it, like the rocket that will truly open up the solar system to humanity.

It was rather appropriate that they served coffee and donuts outside the auditorium this morning. ‘Cause stuff like today, stuff that only a handful of organizations on the planet can do?

Yeah, NASA does that everyday before breakfast.

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