SpaceX aces a fiery rehearsal of the worst-case scenario for Crew Dragon spaceflights

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from its Florida launch pad to begin an in-flight test of the Crew Dragon space taxi’s abort system. (SpaceX / NASA via YouTube)

With a fiery flash and volleys of cheers, SpaceX and NASA today rehearsed something they hope will never happen: a catastrophic rocket failure at the worst time in the launch of a crewed mission to the International Space Station.

Fortunately, the closest things to crew members on today’s in-flight abort test of the Crew Dragon spaceship were two test dummies, sitting on sensors in the seats that will tell engineers how flesh-and-blood fliers would have weathered the aborted trip.

If the results of the test look good, that should take care of the final major hurdle before two actual NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, ride a different Crew Dragon to the station and back later this year.

“It’s kinda the final exam,” Hurley explained in a pre-launch NASA interview.

Although they’re not flying this time around, the two astronauts rehearsed all the steps they’d take before the launch, right down to donning their SpaceX-designed spacesuits and strolling through the elevated walkway leading to the Dragon’s hatch.

SpaceX’s recovery team also practiced the at-sea recovery operation that would come into play if a mission had to be aborted during the ascent to orbit.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley wear their SpaceX-designed spacesuits as they practice going through the launch-pad walkway to a Crew Dragon spacecraft. (NASA Photo)

After some weather-caused delays, SpaceX launched the uncrewed Crew Dragon spaceship atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:30 a.m. ET (7:30 a.m. PT)..

About a minute and a half after launch, the Dragon shut down the Falcon 9’s rocket engines, fired up its own SuperDraco thrusters and pulled away from the rocket, traveling at 2.2 times the speed of sound. Moments later, the Falcon 9’s booster broke up as it fell, lighting up its fuel and producing a huge orange ball of fire.

“It was a mile of distance between the booster and the Dragon, and it was just in a matter of seconds that that separation was created,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a post-mission briefing. “So that just shows you the capability, and all the while, never exceeding 3.5 G’s. That’s really amazing.”

The Dragon coasted into a safe descent, jettisoned its “trunk,” deployed its parachutes and splashed down in the Atlantic, about 20 miles offshore. The whole mission lasted about 10 minutes from liftoff to splashdown.

SpaceX employees who gathered at the company’s mission control in Hawthorne, Calif., cheered every twist and turn of the test, from the launch to the opening of the parachutes and the streaming-video splash into the ocean. Within minutes, the recovery team began working to pluck the Dragon out of the drink and put it on a ship for the return to shore.

“As far as we can tell thus far, it was a picture-perfect mission,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said. He described himself as “super fired-up” about the outcome of the test.

Falcon 9 booster blast
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster explodes after the Dragon capsule makes its escape. (SpaceX / NASA via YouTube)

Ensuring survivability in the event of a launch malfunction is a must-have for all the spacecraft carrying crew members to the space station. The importance of that requirement was brought home in October 2018 when a Russian Soyuz rocket went awry during its ascent.

In that case, the Soyuz escape system worked as it was supposed to, blasting the crew capsule away from the rocket and carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russia’s Alexey Ovchinin to a rough but safe landing.

SpaceX successfully tested the Crew Dragon’s abort system in a simulated launch pad emergency in 2015, and Boeing ran a similar test of its CST-100 Starliner space taxi last November. SpaceX also conducted a successful uncrewed Dragon mission to the space station and back last March.

This in-flight abort test was meant to make absolutely sure the Dragon could handle a worst-case scenario safely. Such a confidence-building measure is particularly important in the wake of an anomaly that destroyed a test version of the Dragon last April, forcing a redesign of the spacecraft’s propulsion system.

In the weeks ahead, NASA and SpaceX will analyze the results of today’s test, and run additional tests of the Crew Dragon’s parachute system. If those assessments bring good results, it may not be that long before Behnken and Hurley play their part in space history.

“Another amazing milestone is complete for our very soon-to-be project, which is launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles,” NASA’s Bridenstine told reporters.

The Crew Dragon for Behnken and Hurley is due to be delivered to Kennedy Space Center by the end of this month, and Musk said the hardware should be ready to fly by the end of March. “It appears probable that the first crewed launch would occur in the second quarter,” Musk said.

This report was originally published at 8:38 p.m. PT Jan. 17 and has been updated with the execution of the in-flight abort test and NASA’s post-mission news briefing.

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