Complex systems abound in our world and it is valuable to model and simulate them to better understand how they work and improve their design. In our case, the model will be a set of physical laws and assumptions that can be applied using a computer program to simulate (or imitate) the motion of NASA’s Launch Abort System (LAS) system for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). As stated in the abstract of a paper by Davidson, et al  “Aborts during the critical ascent flight phase require the design and operation of Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) systems to escape from the Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV) and return the crew safely to the Earth. To accomplish this requirement of continuous abort coverage, CEV ascent abort modes are being designed and analyzed to accommodate the velocity, altitude, atmospheric, and vehicle configuration changes that occur during ascent. Aborts from the launch pad to early in the flight of the CLV second stage are performed using the Launch Abort System (LAS). During this type of abort, the LAS Abort Motor is used to pull the Crew Module (CM) safely away from the CLV and Service Module (SM). LAS abort guidance and control studies and design trades are being conducted so that more informed decisions can be made regarding the vehicle abort requirements, design, and operation.”
Figure 1: The launch abort system for the Pad Abort-1 (PA-1) flight test is positioned on the launch pad in preparation for the test at the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The uncrewed, integrated flight test will evaluate the ability of a launch abort system to pull an astronaut crew to safety in the event of an emergency on a launch pad. (Attribution: NASA)
The LAS has been tested and according to the NASA web site , “NASA's 97-second flight test of Pad Abort 1 (PA-1) was launched at 7 a.m. MT on May 6, 2010, at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. PA-1 is the first fully integrated flight test of the launch abort system being developed for the Orion Crew exploration vehicle.” Refer to NASA’s my exploration web site for a video of the test flight and more details about the LAS and the Pad Abort 1 flight test. “The information gathered from the test will help refine design and analysis for future launch abort systems, resulting in safer and more reliable crew escape capability during rocket launch emergencies ”.
From the description of the LAS, it is clear that systems can be very complex and you can have systems within systems. The LAS is a subsystem of the CEV system, just as Earth’s atmosphere is a subsystem of the Earth system and the atmosphere plays a very important role in the LAS. It is clear that systems and subsystems can interact to further complicate the modeling.
Physics and Engineering
Physics attempts to understand the physical world through theories and models and engineering applies the models to design and understand real-world objects like the LAS. However, physicists and engineers may both do either physics or engineering, which represent two extremes of a continuum of activities. Osborne Reynolds (1842 –1912), one of the first professors of engineering in the UK, did research in fluid dynamics and developed turbulence principles that allowed data on small models (such as ships) to be applied to larger full-scale objects. Richard Feynman (1918-1988), who won the Nobel Prize for fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, helped determine the cause of the failure in the Challenger disaster of 1986. In the processes of doing physics or engineering, practitioners use modeling and simulation to help understand theories/laws and to design/understand real-world products.
Theory/Law, Prediction and Observation/Experiment
One way of looking at how science and engineering work is pictured in the diagram below. Scientists and engineers create theories and laws to explain what they observe and then try to predict new things from their theory/law (A law is a statement that is true given a set of assumptions and a theory attempts to offer explanations for basic observed truths. See the chapter, “Toward Understanding Gravitation" in this book for more detail). Then they go back and observe to see if their prediction holds. When their prediction doesn’t hold, they modify their theory/law or maybe even have to build a new theory/law. There is no set order in the theory/law, observe/experiment, predict cycle, and depending on the circumstances, scientists and engineers will jump around between the three complementary processes.
Figure 2: Modeling and simulation using a computer can play a very important role in the above process. (Attribution: Randall Caton, CC-BY-NC-SA.)
Modeling, Simulation and the LAS
Newton’s laws will play an essential role in the process of simulating the LAS as they are the basic laws that govern the motion of the LAS. In programming the simulation using Etoys, we will make various assumptions that will be part of the model. Etoys is embedded in the Squeak programming environment. Squeak is a free, open-source, object-oriented, multimedia authoring environment that runs on many platforms and can be used to construct active learning environments. Programs can be written in the Squeak environment by novices using Etoys graphical programming tiles or by experts using Smalltalk. Everything in the Etoys world is an object. Each object has properties and can send messages to other objects. The objects are like actors on a stage. Each object can be imbued with actions that create interactive experiences for learners and authoring is always on. Students learning from this chapter will be using Etoys to simulate the LAS. When first learning to program simulations, it is best to start with the simplest case and work towards the more complex actual case by relaxing some of the simplifying assumptions. Students will make a series of modifications to the simulation as they progress towards a more realistic model of the LAS.