The Orion spacecraft blasted high above the White Sands Missile Range in a successful 97-second flight this morning, but there was no gigantic launch vehicle underneath. That's because NASA was testing its launch abort system, consisting of three sets of rocket engines designed to separate Orion from an exploding launch vehicle. It worked.
Escape systems were attached to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, but this one's different. The old models were designed to simply pull the spacecraft away from the launch vehicle, possibly resulting in wild, uncontrolled gyrations. Good luck opening parachutes in that crazy environment.
This one has three different rockets: the abort motor with 500,000 pounds of thrust that accelerates the Orion capsule to Mach 0.6 in three seconds; the attitude control motor, a solid rocket engine that can steer the spacecraft with eight different valves; and the jettison motor that ejects the abort system tower from the capsule. The stabilized spacecraft can then pop out its three parachutes for a gentle descent back to Earth.
Now if NASA could somehow get its Orion program off the ground, this successful test would be reassuring to all the capsule's future occupants.
See how NASA prepared for launch in the video below.