After almost a decade, NASA's Commercial Crew Program aims launch astronauts from the United States on American-made spacecraft. NASA has been highly dependent on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft ever since the shuttle program ended in 2011. NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to develop Crew Dragon, a spacecraft that will ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX is preparing to launch their first manned mission in history this year!
Watch the simulation of what will happen during their first manned mission in the video below:
Before that simulation video of astronauts flying aboard the craft can become a reality, SpaceX engineers will conduct a final major test on their Crew Dragon spacecraft. They will conduct a vital In-Flight Abort (IFA) test, that will test Dragon's launch escape system. This test aims to demonstrate to NASA that the Dragon spacecraft can be capable of saving astronauts if there is a mid-air emergency, like if their Falcon 9 rocket malfunctions while 'In-Flight.' To earn a human-rating certificate they must pass the IFA test before putting any astronauts aboard.
The unmanned In-Flight Abort test is scheduled for Saturday morning, January 18 at 8:00 a.m. EST. the start of a 4 hour test window.
Targeted for Sat., Jan. 18: the final major test before @NASA_Astronauts fly on the @SpaceX #CrewDragon. This @Commercial_Crew in-flight abort test will demo that the crew system can protect astronauts in the unlikely event of an emergency during launch: https://t.co/DqW77V2nTR pic.twitter.com/fzsTa7Jv58— NASA (@NASA) January 13, 2020
SpaceX teams performed a static-fire test, which is a routine pre-flight preparation that checks a craft's engines are in stable conditions to carry out a flight. Last Saturday, January 11, a static-fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket, that will launch Crew Dragon during this vital mission, was conducted. They also performed a static-fire test of Dragon's SuperDraco engines last year on November 13, 2019 in preparation for this major demonstration mission.
Critical test launch before flying astronauts is green for Jan 18 https://t.co/r4mcuCfCil— Buff Mage (@elonmusk) January 11, 2020
The In-Flight Abort test will take place at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A in Florida. Before the test begins, SpaceX and NASA teams will practice how a real launch day operation will be like alongside NASA astronauts.
These practice preparations will include a variety of supporting staff performing their duty as they would during a real manned mission. This will enable them to train with a real Falcon 9/Crew Dragon launch to gain more experience and knowledge beyond training with only computerised simulations. Astronauts will also practice performing spacecraft inspections and closing Dragon's side hatch. The astronauts that will practice along during this demo test are Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who have been training for the past years. These astronauts will be who will perform the first manned mission to the ISS later this year.
As the unmanned IFA mission begins, everything will mimick how a real voyage to the space station would be like -except that they will purposely cause an explosion to see if Crew Dragon's launch escape system passes the safety test. To simulate a dangerous scenario engineers have configured Dragon to intentionally escape before a time-lapse of 1 minute 30 seconds, quick, right after liftoff. Watch Video Below:
As soon as the escape countdown begins, the Falcon 9 rocket's nine Merlin 1D engines will shut down, as Dragon begins to ignite. Dragon will fire its 8 SuperDraco abort engines to escape from danger while in flight. At approximately 88 to 90 seconds after liftoff, Dragon will attempt the escape, that's the time when the spacecraft will experience maximum aerodynamic pressure, also known as "Max Q." It is considered to be the most stressing moment during launch, because the rocket is pushing through the speed of sound at that 90 second mark (1 minute 30 seconds). The SuperDraco engines can move Dragon half a mile in only 7.5 seconds, equivalent to a peak velocity of 436 miles per hour. That's the moment when both crafts will separate from each other.
#ICYMI 🐉 Last week, @SpaceX completed a series of static fire engine tests of the #CrewDragon spacecraft.— NASA Commercial Crew (@Commercial_Crew) November 20, 2019
The tests will help validate the launch escape system for the in-flight abort demonstration planned as part of @NASA's Commercial Crew Program.
💻: https://t.co/xsSedwxanU pic.twitter.com/iCDGD8G4ir
The Crew Dragon’s SuperDracos will burn to completion and shutdown. NASA explained: The "spacecraft will passively coast to apogee, the highest point in its arc. Near apogee, Crew Dragon’s trunk will separate and the smaller Draco thrusters will re-orient the spacecraft for reentry and parachute deploy." Once it thrusts itself a safe distance away from the explosive Falcon 9 rocket, Dragon will deploy it's 4 integrated parachutes to soft land into the Atlantic Ocean. Dragon must splashdown intact into the ocean to meet NASA’s Commercial Crew Program safety requirements. The launch escape system should be able to reliably fly astronauts plus save them in an event of a dangerous rocket failure.
Following Crew Dragon’s separation, NASA explained that Falcon 9 is expected to aerodynamically break up and explode offshore over the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket will intentionally explode so the remaining rocket fuel can be consumed quickly. There is only a 1% chance that the rocket won't explode in the sky and fall into the water intact. The agency said the Falcon 9 rocket's "expected breakup time will vary based upon a number of factors, including day of launch winds and expected minor variations in vehicle attitudes and positions, but could occur shortly after separation or later upon reentry from the upper atmosphere. In either scenario, a dedicated team of SpaceX Falcon 9 recovery personnel will be staged and ready to begin recovering debris immediately after breakup."
The Dragon craft recovery operations will involve Air Force Detachment-3 personnel working in coordination with the SpaceX recovery team, they will mimic the recovery process of how it would be to approach and return a craft during a real space re-entry of a crewed Dragon mission.
If the In-Flight Abort test goes as planned, and everything in Dragon's escape system proves it can safely get astronauts out of danger, SpaceX will receive certification to launch NASA astronauts aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft. It would initiate a new era that will bring back manned missions to space launched from American soil.
Good luck to SpaceX and NASA!
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.