Story

A Quick History of Launch Escape Systems

Posted on Fri, October 7, 2016
favorite

Blue Origin, Jeff Bezo’s private rocket company, passed an in-flight test of its launch escape system Wednesday—a method of detaching a crew capsule from a launch rocket. The successful test moves Blue Origin one step closer to its goal of carrying tourists into space.

How to bring crews safely back to Earth in the event something goes wrong during a launch has always been a concern. Launch escape systems have been engineered into nearly all ventures into space.

MERCURY & APOLLO

Both the Mercury and Apollo spacecraft used rocket-powered “escape towers” that would pull a crewed capsule away from the rocket booster in the event of an emergency. The “escape tower,” a solid-fuel rocket, sat on top of the capsule and would pull the capsule far enough away to allow for a normal parachute descent.

This 1/3 model of a Mercury capsule shows the tower in red.

Mercury (1:3 scale model)

Astronauts flew two suborbital missions and four orbital missions in Mercury capsules from 1961 through 1963.

Colorful depiction of Apollo Launch Escape with Earth in background.

An artist depiction of the Apollo Jettison Launch Escape System.

GEMINI

Unlike the Mercury and Apollo spacecraft, the two-person crew of Gemini would use ejection seats to escape a launch failure. The rocket-powered seat would propel the astronaut away from the exploding booster. Then the astronaut would separate from their seat and descend using a personal parachute. At very high altitudes, a parachute-like braking device, “ballute,” would deploy to stabilize the astronaut during supersonic free-fall.

Fortunately, no Gemini launches ever failed and the ejection seats and parachutes were never deployed on an actual spaceflight.

Side view of metal, gray seat.

A Gemini ejection seat from the Museum's collection. This seat was likely used in training by Gemini astronauts.

Packaged parachute set.

Either Charles "Pete" Conrad or Richard Gordon wore this parachute on their Gemini XI mission, September 12-15, 1966. If there had been a launch-vehicle emergency, they could have ejected from the spacecraft. This parachute would have unfolded after the astronaut separated from the ejection seat.

SPACE SHUTTLE

The shuttle initially flew with two live ejection seats for the Enterprise approach and landing tests as well as the first four launches of Columbia. However, once more than two pilots were present in the shuttle, the seats were disarmed. Further development of ejection seats was halted due the difficulty of ejecting such large crews. Ideas of a separable crew cabin were discussed, but ultimately rejected—it  simply wasn’t feasible to modify the vehicle.

In developing their launch escape system, Blue Origin drew inspiration from the Mercury and Apollo programs. They use a solid rocket, but instead of placing it above the capsule, they use it like a “pusher” below the crew cabin.