Image Source: NASA
Over the weekend, on Sunday January 19, SpaceX conducted an In-Flight Abort (IFA) test to demonstrate how Crew Dragon's launch escape system works. This was one of the final most important mission before launching astronauts aboard the spacecraft. The In-Flight Abort mission was successful. During the test, SpaceX demonstrated Crew Dragon is capable of saving astronauts in the event of a rocket malfunction and it also served as a practice run for astronauts and rescue teams, as well as all technical staff. NASA said in a statement before the test:
"SpaceX and NASA flight controllers along with support teams will be staged as they will for future Crew Dragon missions, helping the integrated launch team gain additional experience beyond existing simulations and training events."
During the IFA test, a Falcon 9 rocket took off from Launch Pad 39A at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX engineers simulated a dangerous scenario to test the craft's launch escape capabilities. At about 90 seconds after lift-off, Dragon ignited its 8 SuperDraco engines as the Falcon 9 rocket shutdown its nine Merlin 1D engines to simulate a launch failure. This initiated Dragon's escape countdown and caused the rocket to breakdown aerodynamically, exploding in the sky. Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and Chief engineer said:
"Peak velocity of Dragon during abort was more than double the speed of sound."
The Dragon spacecraft reached an approximate altitude of 40 kilometers -that's more than three times the altitude of a typical airliner. The craft burned its engines until shutdown, then released its trunk to use its thrusters to re-orient itself to come back into Earth's atmosphere to perform a parachute-assisted landing into the Atlantic Ocean off Florida's coastline, about 32 kilometers east of the Kennedy Space Center. The craft's trunk landed at sea, Musk shared a photograph of the trunk captioned:
"Dragon trunk from in-flight abort test is in surprisingly good shape!"
Dragon trunk from in-flight abort test is in surprisingly good shape! pic.twitter.com/IGeffiNh9A— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 20, 2020
Last night, SpaceX teams worked in coordination with United States Air Force 45th Operations Group's Detachment-3, out of Patrick Air Force base, to recover Crew Dragon. They sailed aboard Go Searcher through the Atlantic Ocean with the objective to recover the spacecraft to take it back to Port Canaveral where engineers will inspect if the craft is in good conditions. The Go Searcher ship has previously assisted teams to recover Dragon after it comes back to Earth during cargo missions from the International Space Station. Watch a video of Crew Dragon's recovery operation:
SpaceX will be launching NASA astronauts to the station on-board the Dragon spacecraft this year, Go Searcher has been especially upgraded for the role of recovering Dragon with passengers after splashdown into the ocean. The ship features a medical treatment room and a helicopter landing pad, to aid astronauts upon returning from space. Go Searcher's onboard medical facility can deliver onsite treatment. A helicopter carrying doctors and paramedics could be dispatched to land on the ships pad to quickly take astronauts to a nearby hospital.
During the IFA mission, Dragon was equipped with two humanoid astronaut mannequins that have sensors inside, called anthropomorphic test devices. These collected data of how an astronaut would experience a launch escape situation aboard the spacecraft.
She’s back! The #CrewDragon spacecraft that completed the in-flight abort test has arrived back at Cape Canaveral. After splashdown, teams from @SpaceX & the @usairforce 45th Operations Group’s Detachment-3 rehearsed crew recovery ops before bringing the spacecraft back to port. pic.twitter.com/Po9TVibS9J— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) January 20, 2020
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine shared a photograph of Crew Dragon today, he said:
"She’s back! The Crew Dragon spacecraft that completed the in-flight abort test has arrived back at Cape Canaveral. After splashdown, teams from SpaceX & the U.S Air Force 45th Operations Group’s Detachment-3 rehearsed crew recovery ops before bringing the spacecraft back to port."
The Crew Dragon spacecraft appears to be in good condition after the In-Flight Abort test that truly pushed the craft to it's limits. Recovery teams used Go Searcher's rear crane to haul Crew Dragon out of the water and onto the main deck, to bring it back to SpaceX facilities in Florida for inspection. They used yesterday's mission to practice how they would rescue astronauts during a real recovery operation.
SpaceX's aims to launch their first crewed flight to the International Space Station around April this year. "The hardware necessary for the crewed launch, I believe will be ready by the end of February." Musk told reporters yesterday, "However, there is still a lot of work once the hardware is ready...to triple check...go over everything again. Until every stone has been turned over three or four times. We are highly confident the hardware will be ready in Q1 (first quarter of the year) most likely end of February but no later than March... We think it appears probable that the first crewed launch would occur in the second quarter."