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Aborts

Selection of an ascent abort mode may become necessary if there is a failure that affects vehicle performance, such as the failure of a Space Shuttle main engine or an orbital maneuvering system. Other failures requiring early termination of a flight, such as a cabin leak, might require the selection of an abort mode.

There are two basic types of ascent abort modes for Space Shuttle missions: intact aborts and contingency aborts. Intact aborts are designed to provide a safe return of the orbiter to a planned landing site. Contingency aborts are designed to permit flight crew survival following more severe failures when an intact abort is not possible. A contingency abort would generally result in a ditch operation.

Intact Aborts

There are four types of intact aborts:

Abort To Orbit
The ATO mode is designed to allow the vehicle to achieve a temporary orbit that is lower than the nominal orbit. This mode requires less performance and allows time to evaluate problems and then choose either an early deorbit maneuver or an orbital maneuvering system thrusting maneuver to raise the orbit and continue the mission.
Abort Once Around
The AOA is designed to allow the vehicle to fly once around the Earth and make a normal entry and landing. This mode generally involves two orbital maneuvering system thrusting sequences, with the second sequence being a deorbit maneuver. The entry sequence would be similar to a normal entry.
Transatlantic Landing
The TAL mode is designed to permit an intact landing on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. This mode results in a ballistic trajectory, which does not require an orbital maneuvering system maneuver.
Return to Launch Site
The RTLS mode involves flying downrange to dissipate propellant and then turning around under power to return directly to a landing at or near the launch site.

There is a definite order of preference for the various abort modes. The type of failure and the time of the failure determine which type of abort is selected. In cases where performance loss is the only factor, the preferred modes would be ATO, AOA, TAL and RTLS, in that order. The mode chosen is the highest one that can be completed with the remaining vehicle performance. In the case of some support system failures, such as cabin leaks or vehicle cooling problems, the preferred mode might be the one that will end the mission most quickly. In these cases, TAL or RTLS might be preferable to AOA or ATO. A contingency abort is never chosen if another abort option exists.

The Mission Control Center-Houston is prime for calling these aborts because it has a more precise knowledge of the orbiter's position than the crew can obtain from onboard systems. Before main engine cutoff, Mission Control makes periodic calls to the crew to tell them which abort mode is (or is not) available. If ground communications are lost, the flight crew has onboard methods, such as cue cards, dedicated displays and display information, to determine the current abort region.

Which abort mode is selected depends on the cause and timing of the failure causing the abort and which mode is safest or improves mission success. If the problem is a Space Shuttle main engine failure, the flight crew and Mission Control Center select the best option available at the time a space shuttle main engine fails.

If the problem is a system failure that jeopardizes the vehicle, the fastest abort mode that results in the earliest vehicle landing is chosen. RTLS and TAL are the quickest options (35 minutes), whereas an AOA requires approximately 90 minutes. Which of these is elected depends on the time of the failure with three good Space Shuttle main engines.

The flight crew selects the abort mode by positioning an abort mode switch and depressing an abort push button.

Contingency Abort.

Contingency aborts are caused by loss of more than one main engine or failures in other systems. Loss of one main engine while another is stuck at a low thrust setting may also necessitate a contingency abort. Such an abort would maintain orbiter integrity for in-flight crew escape if a landing cannot be achieved at a suitable landing field.

Contingency aborts due to system failures other than those involving the main engines would normally result in an intact recovery of vehicle and crew. Loss of more than one main engine may, depending on engine failure times, result in a safe runway landing. However, in most three-engine-out cases during ascent, the orbiter would have to be ditched. The in-flight crew escape system would be used before ditching the orbiter.


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002
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