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NASA tested the launch abort system for the Orion crew exploration vehicle for the first time today, with spectacular results.Regardless of the ultimate fate of Orion -- now at the center of a Washington dispute over the future path of U.S. human spaceflight -- the test produced valuable data that can make future crew capsules much safer.William Faulkner, a freelance photographer in Las Cruces, N.M., took these shots of the test at nearby White Sands Missile Range for Aviation Week & Space Technology.The 400,000-pound-thrust abort motor ignites. The Orion capsule hidden by the flames was a dummy, but had it carried a crew they would have experienced a 16-g acceleration load.In these shots, the abort motor pulls the capsule aloft, simulating how it would get it away from a failing launch vehicle. The capsule begins to be visible in the lower image, as the eight-nozzle attitude control motor at the top of the stack stabilizes its flight.Here, the attitude-control motor steers the capsule into position for release.In the next two shots, the capsule flies free as the jettison motor fires to pull the escape tower away. In the lower photo, panels covering the parachute system in the capsule's nose fall away.The drogue chute begins to appear.Next come the pilot chutes...... followed by the three main chutes, which carry the capsule to the ground.From launch to landing, the test lasted one minute, 35 seconds. During that time the capsule rose to an altitude of 3,886 feet, and flew down range 6,919 feet.Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion program manager, told reporters after the test that it demonstrated engineers can integrate the three elements of the solid-fuel system -- abort motor, attitude control motor and jettison motor -- and make them work together smoothly for a safe abort in a launch failure.Experts will plug data from the 700 instruments on the vehicle into the computer models that engineers use to predict how their systems will perform, improving their accuracy for future developments, according to NASA Test Director Don Reed.ALL PHOTOS BY WILLIAM FAULKNER/LAS CRUCES, N.M., for Aviation Week & Space Technology
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