NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hold a press conference after NASA and SpaceX performed an in-flight abort test of the Crew Dragon capsule. (Image Credit: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
On Sunday, January 19, SpaceX successfully completed an In-Flight Abort (IFA) test of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This was an unmanned test that demonstrated Crew Dragon’s ability to safety escape a dangerous situation after liftoff. During the IFA test, a Dragon spacecraft lifted off atop a Falcon 9 rocket early morning with the launch escape system triggered at approximately 1 minute 30 seconds into flight (90 seconds). Crew Dragon's 8 SuperDraco engines powered by hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants to push the spacecraft away from the failing Falcon 9 rocket at speeds from about 1,200 mph up to more than 1,500 mph in approximately seven seconds, equivalent of about 675 meters per second -surpassing the speed of sound. After the test launch the Chief engineer and founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, 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. Following separation, Dragon 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 42 kilometers east of the Kennedy Space Center. Two drogue parachutes deployed at an altitude of about 5.8 kilometers and Dragon’s four main parachutes opened at around 2 kilometers above the ocean to soft-land. The craft's trunk landed at sea too, 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
Falcon 9 shut its engines down, which caused it to aerodynamically explode seconds after the Crew Dragon escape countdown initiated. According to Musk, the craft has the capability to detect when the Falcon 9 malfunctions, even if the rocket explodes with no warning sign:
"In principle, the system is designed to withstand an adverse booster explosion … that happens even before the escape event."
"So it’s intended to be very robust, in principle. And … it’s less of an explosion than it is fire. It’s a fireball, but it’s more for a fireball than it is an over overpressure event like an explosion," Musk explained, "And since the spacecraft has a very powerful base heat shield and even the leeward side heat shield, it should be really not significantly affected by a fireball. So it could quite literally — like something out of Star Wars — fly right out of the fireball. Obviously, we want to avoid doing that but. But it is really meant to be something that can fly out of the fireball."
After Dragon safely splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean, SpaceX teams worked in coordination with United States Air Force 45th Operations Group's Detachment-3 to recover Crew Dragon with a ship called Go Searcher. They returned Dragon to the port in Cape Canaveral in less than 9 hours after the launch, demonstrating teams can quickly return the craft to land after a splashdown. Recovering the craft in the least amount of time possible is important because during actual crewed flights bringing back astronauts and scientific experiments as quickly as possible is vital, especially if there were to be an accident emergency situation.
Musk said that the test appeared "picture-perfect" then SpaceX officials stated the data from this In-Flight Abort test, demonstrated that the performance of the Dragon spacecraft's SuperDraco abort engines was "flawless." Adding that the telemetry signal from the Falcon 9 rocket stopped at around 11 seconds after the escape burn. Also, that the distance between the Falcon 9 explosion and Dragon was a "comfortable" distance of about 1.5 kilometers.
The IFA demonstration was the final planned test flight of Crew Dragon before NASA gives SpaceX the green light to launch astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station. The company does have some minor parachute tests that are scheduled for mid-February, just to ensure that the parachutes do work at optimal levels. Musk stated:
"The hardware necessary for the crewed launch, I believe will be ready by the end of February. 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."
He added, "And there is also the schedule for getting to the space station, so, because the space station has a lot of things going to it so when is the right timing for this...So, the sort of collective wisdom at this point is that 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."
NASA and SpaceX agreed that the first Crew Dragon launch with astronauts could occur sometime during the second quarter of this year, which is a period beginning in April and ending in June. "It's just going to be wonderful to get astronauts back into orbit from American soil after almost a decade of not being able to do so. I think that's super exciting." Musk told reporters, "To be back in the saddle again, and to be launching frequently again is something that matters to America and to people world-wide."
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About the Author
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.