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Wallops to test crew escape system Wednesday A.M.

There's an interesting launch planned for early Wednesday at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, down on Virginia's Eastern Shore. It's not one that will be visible for hundreds of miles around, but it does mark an important milestone for manned space flight. The weather forecast is promising.

At 6:15 a.m. EDT, NASA will attempt to launch its Max Launch Abort System, a rocket-propelled mechanism that's designed to pull astronauts and their crew capsule away from their boosters in the event of a failure at, or near, the launch pad. If there's a delay, the launch window is open until 10 a.m.

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UPDATE: Launch (photo) was successful. Anyone see it?

The idea recalls the tall escape towers that topped the old Mercury and Apollo capsules. They were essentially small rocket engines designed to yank the crew capsule to safety and provide time for its parachutes to deploy and lower the crew safely to the ocean.

If the space shuttle had had a similar system, the Challenger crew might have made it to safety as their booster rockets and liquid fuel tanks blew up after launch in 1986.

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The MLAS system is being developed for possible use with NASA's planned Orion spacecraft, the Apollo-like capsule that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2015, and on to the moon in 2020, if all goes according to plan.

Anyway, the launch from Wallops Wednesday morning will be a short one - two minutes. The MLAS rocket is expected to carry a simulated Orion capsule no more than a mile into the sky, and a mile out to sea. But it would sure be something nifty to watch if you happen to be nearby.

The test vehicle is 33 feet tall and the whole system weighs 45,000 pounds. The weather forecast for the area is good.

For more information, visit the Wallops Web site. Their launches can be followed on Twitter @NASA_Wallops.

(NASA PHOTO)

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