While companies design and perfect spacecraft and rockets to take people into space safely, teams of NASA engineers are deciphering what needs to happen if a launch goes wrong. In other words, what kind of ejection system will astronauts need to survive?
"We're trying to give the crew that last option for when things go bad," said Brent Jett, deputy director of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, or CCP, and four-time space shuttle astronaut. Keep in mind that the system needs to work at all points during ascent, from the launch pad where the air is thick and the spacecraft is not moving at all, to more than 100 miles above Earth, where there is no discernable air and the spacecraft and crew are speeding along at 17,500 mph, or about 5 miles a second.
Also, consider that because rockets can malfunction and even explode within a second of the first problem, the ejection system needs to be able to spot a problem and get the spacecraft out of danger before it's too late. "Basically, you're separating from the rocket with a smaller rocket and it's a pretty extreme environment to put the crew into," said Chris Gerace, deputy chief of CCP's Systems Engineering and Requirements Office.