Astronauts to use zip line in event of emergency at Cape Canaveral
Cost of system not disclosed
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – If an emergency forces astronauts to evacuate a Boeing Starliner capsule and Atlas V rocket at Launch Complex 41, they’ll fly a quarter-mile to safety on a commercially produced zip line similar to ones ridden by thousands of tourists and thrill-seekers.
Hopping into individual orange seats with harnesses, the crew would release brakes to start a 172-foot drop, accelerating to more than 40 mph as they zip 1,350 feet away from the pad in about 30 seconds, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
“Whether it’s flight crew or ground crew, if we needed to get them off the tower because something was going bad, or we had an anomaly we were uncomfortable with on the rocket, then we could get the crew away,” said Gary Wentz, vice president of Human and Commercial Services at United Launch Alliance.
Formally called an “emergency egress system,” the zip line has been installed and tested at Launch Complex 41 in anticipation of NASA astronauts starting flights to the International Space Station in late 2018, in Boeing Starliner capsules being developed under the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.
A first test flight with a pair of NASA astronauts is targeted for August 2018.
ULA and Boeing studied options including rollercoaster-like tracks or a gondola, but determined that Park City, Utah-based Terra-Nova’s zip lines offered the best value and safety.
About a million people a year ride Terra-Nova zip lines, including the world’s longest, the mile-and-a-half-long Copper Canyon ZipRider in Mexico.
Before the 33rd National Space Symposium started this week in Colorado Springs, Colorado, ULA and Boeing officials showed off another Terra-Nova zip line at nearby Royal Gorge, where visitors soar high over the Arkansas River.
“That was key for us, is people are putting their children on this,” Wentz said of systems similar to the one that has been adapted for astronauts.
The zip line is a variation on the shuttle program’s slidewire basket system, which SpaceX will continue to use for crews flying Dragon capsules from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A, flights also scheduled to start next year.
That system would have whisked baskets carrying multiple shuttle crew members away from the pad’s 195-foot level to a stop 1,200 feet to the west. It will be modified to fit Falcon rockets and Dragon spacecraft.
Shuttle commander Charlie Bolden, NASA’s administrator for most of the Obama administration, was one of only a few people to ride the slidewire system, during a test in 1988.
Though they reached a top speed of 55 mph, Bolden said it was nothing like an amusement park ride.
“If we had put our kids in there, they would have asked for their money back,” Bolden told reporters at the time. It wasn't a thrill ride. It was a very, very gentle ride all the way down.”
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 41 now is rigged with four zip line cables, each with five seats. Though it could support up to 20 people, ULA and Boeing expects no more than 10 near the capsule and its access arm late in a countdown.
The companies say the system is relatively simple to use even in spacesuits and more efficient, because crew members can fly away individually when they are ready without waiting for multiple people to climb into a basket.
“It’s actually like a swing seat,” said Chris Ferguson, a former shuttle commander who is Boeing’s director of Starliner Crew and Mission Systems. “You just sort of hop in there, and there’s a safety harness. I think in a lot of ways it’s easier than the slidewire system.”
NASA has required that crews be able to get out of their capsule and to the zip line within 90 seconds; ULA tests have shown it can be done in less than a minute.
The four NASA astronauts training to fly the first Starliner and Dragon test flights, following demonstration flights without crews on board, have participated in the tests but not yet taken the ride.
A separate training system will be installed near the launch pad.
Terra-Nova owner Eric Cylvick said zip line riders feel like they’re flying, but it’s not a wild ride.
“What they’re expecting is a much rougher ride, and it ends up being a much smoother ride,” he said. “I think they’re shocked at how much control you have over the ride.”
Once on the ground, crews will hop into armored trucks NASA acquired from the military and ride about a quarter-mile to an “extraction point,” likely a helicopter pad.
The zip line system's cost was not disclosed. It's part of a NASA contract worth up to $4.2 billion for Boeing to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. The space agency in 2014 also awarded SpaceX a contract worth up to $2.6 billion.
Of course, it’s hoped that Starliner astronauts will never need to use the zip line for anything but training, just like shuttle astronauts with the slide wire system.
Unlikely situations that might prompt an emergency pad evacuation could include fluctuating tank pressures or electrical shorts while the rocket is fully fueled.
“Things that could cascade or could develop into a significant catastrophic event,” said Wentz.
The Starliner also will have the ability to fire engines and rocket away from the Atlas V on the pad, or during flight, if necessary.
A Starliner test flight to the International Space Station, without a crew, is targeted for the summer of 2018. The crewed test flight could follow within a few months.
“We look forward to spaceflight operations next year knowing that every measure to protect the flight and ground crew has been employed,” said Ferguson.
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