SpaceX and NASA are doing a dress rehearsal for something they hope will never happen: a catastrophic failure at virtually the worst time in the launch of a crewed mission to the International Space Station.
Fortunately, the closest things to crew members on this in-flight abort test of the Crew Dragon spaceship are two test dummies, hooked up to sensors that will tell engineers how flesh-and-blood fliers would have weathered the aborted trip.
If all goes well, 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.
Although they’re not flying this time around, they’ve been rehearsing all the steps they’d take before the launch, down to donning their SpaceX-designed spacesuits and taking a stroll through the elevated walkway leading to the Dragon’s hatch.
SpaceX’s recovery team also intends to practice the at-sea recovery operation that would come into play if a mission had to be aborted during the ascent to orbit.
SpaceX is scheduled to launch the uncrewed Crew Dragon spaceship atop a Falcon 9 rocket blasting off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, within a four-hour window that starts at 8 a.m. ET (5 a.m. PT) Saturday.
About a minute and a half after launch, the Dragon is programmed to fire up its thrusters and pull itself away from the rocket, traveling at 2.3 times the speed of sound. The Falcon 9’s rocket engines will shut down, and the booster is expected to break up as it falls, probably producing some fireworks in the process.
Meanwhile, the Dragon should coast into a safe descent, deploy its parachutes, and splash down in the Atlantic about 20 miles offshore. The whole mission should last about 10 minutes from liftoff to splashdown.
Saturday’s weather forecast looks good for liftoff, but the conditions for splashdown are just as important. And on that score, SpaceX says there’s a chance that the test could be delayed:
Latest weather data suggests sustained winds and rough seas in the recovery area during the top of tomorrow’s four-hour launch escape test window; now targeting toward the end of the window. Will continue to monitor weather and update the T-0 accordingly in the morning
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 18, 2020
NASA and SpaceX say they can wait for days if necessary to get the right combination of conditions.
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 is 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.
If the in-flight test is successful, NASA and SpaceX will take some extra time to analyze the results and run additional tests of the Crew Dragon’s parachute system. And if those assessments bring good results, it may not be that long before Behnken and Hurley play their part in a huge milestone: the first mission to send a crew into orbit from U.S. soil since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in 2011.
“I’m excited we’ll soon launch American astronauts from American soil!” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted today.
The Crew Dragon for Behnken and Hurley is due to be delivered to Kennedy Space Center by the end of this month, and it could be ready to fly by early March.
NASA TV is expected to begin live coverage of the countdown 15 minutes before liftoff, and SpaceX says it’ll start its webcast about 20 minutes before liftoff. Check out the SpaceX webcast on YouTube when it occurs: