by Bob Sauls
For more on NASA’s Emergency Egress System, check out this week’s episode of the PopSci Podcast
If something goes wrong in the tense moments before a space launch, such as an explosion of noxious gases or a fire on the launchpad, future astronauts could escape harm-on a roller coaster. Chris Bergin, editor
of the independent Web site NASASpaceFlight.com, recently unearthed a confidential NASA study of emergency egress systems (EES) in which the authors recommended using mini railcars, docked at the top of a 350-foot-tall launch tower, to speed crews down a track to ground level in a heart-pumping 4.5 seconds.
If you´re imagining astronauts screaming â€Whee!â€ inside their helmets with their gloved hands in the air, you´re not far off: Roller-coaster engineers served as consultants on the design, Bergin says. Other escape plans under consideration include a faster version of the current EES for space-shuttle flights-baskets suspended from cables, which astronauts have, thankfully, never had to use-as well as a high-speed elevator and a â€slide tube.â€
At press time, NASA wouldn´t specify a front-runner, but Kennedy Space Center´s Bruce Buckingham says a new EES will be in place for the launch of the shuttle´s successor, Orion, as early as 2012. That leaves plenty of time for practice runs at Six Flags.
STEP 1: Hop in and Buckle Up
At the first sign of danger, astronauts dash from the crew vehicle across the top of the launch tower and buckle into an enclosed four-seat mini car. Up to four cabs would be lined up on the track to accommodate other escaping launch and rescue personnel.
STEP 2:Prepare to Drop
A crew member inside unlocks the unpowered coaster from its safety catch, sending the car down a tubular track to the base of the tower. As with many modern amusement-park steel rocket â€screamers,â€ gravity keeps the coaster wheels locked to the track, and the enclosure protects astronauts from smoke, toxic leaks and flying debris.
STEP 3: Hold Onto Your Lunch
Traveling at a
100 mph, the cab rolls about 1,200 feet along a ground track to a safe area or bunker located inside the launch zone. A passive magnetic and friction braking system similar to those used on amusement-park rides decelerates the cabs. Total time from launchpad to bunker: about 88 seconds.
STEP 4: Relax
The evacuated crew exit the roller-coaster car into the safety of a covered and ventilated area, which can hold 21 people in sealed comfort for up to an hour until the danger has passed.
Other Creative Ways to Escape Disaster: