November 4, 2019
SpaceX's goal is to safely carry astronauts into space. They're developing a capsule, named Crew Dragon, that attaches to the top of their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Dragon is the only spacecraft currently flying that is capable of taking and returning large amounts of cargo to Earth. Currently, Dragon only carries cargo to space but it was designed with the intention to carry humans one day. They have been developing the Crew Dragon version under a $2.6 billion contract with NASA's Commercial Crew Program. It is important for NASA to support the development of American spacecraft because they have been dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get their astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) since the space shuttle fleet was grounded in 2011.
SpaceX has been conducting tests to ensure that the Crew Dragon version of the craft can pass a series of flight and safety tests before launching any humans on board. The Dragon spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) becoming the first American spacecraft in history to autonomously dock with the ISS on it's first demonstration flight under NASA's Commercial Crew Program launched on March 2, 2019. This is a huge success for the company because it demonstrated Crew Dragon could one day successfully transport astronauts to the ISS.
Crew Dragon a top Falcon 9. March 2, 2019. Source: SpaceX
SpaceX developed a launch escape system which is designed to use eight SuperDraco engines to unattach, "abort" -the Crew Dragon spacecraft quickly from its Falcon 9 rocket in case of a launch emergency. The capsule would then return astronauts to Earth under a set of four parachutes safely.
Test of Crew Dragon’s upgraded launch escape system ahead of static fire and in-flight abort tests – altogether we are conducting hundreds of tests to verify the system's advanced capabilities to carry astronauts to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency pic.twitter.com/a4FucMh85l— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 24, 2019
Ahead of our in-flight abort test for @Commercial_Crew—which will demonstrate Crew Dragon's ability to safely carry astronauts away from the rocket in the unlikely event of an emergency—our team has completed over 700 tests of the spacecraft's SuperDraco engines pic.twitter.com/nswMPCK3F9— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 12, 2019
They tested the third version of the parachute system, referred to Mark 3 or Mk3, on its Crew Dragon spacecraft. The system had malfunctioned in the past, so they upgraded the capsule with a newly designed parachute system, which had a successful parachute test. This recent test, involved using the system with one of the four parachutes intentionally not deploying, in order to prove that the craft can still land safely even in case of a failure. SpaceX teams will conduct 9 additional parachute tests.
SpaceX shared a video clip of the tests via Twitter yesterday:
Great work by SpaceX Dragon team & Airborne! To be clear, we’ve only done 1 multi-parachute test of Mk3 design, so 9 more left to reach 10 successful tests in a row. https://t.co/Q814zVoW4S— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 4, 2019
The next test, will be a ground test firing of the SuperDraco thrusters that is scheduled to happen later this week on Wednesday, November 6. at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
There are plans for an in-flight abort test (IFA) that could take place before the year ends, which will show how the Crew Dragon can unattach quickly and set itself free from a Falcon 9 rocket after lift-off in case of emergency.
Two of the recently installed SuperDraco escape thrusters on SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule. Source: NASA
In an event recently held at SpaceX’s headquarters in California, NASA’s administrator Jim Bridenstine and Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, spoke about the future of Crew Dragon. Bridenstine said:
"We are getting very close, and we're very confident that, in the first part of next year, we will be ready to launch American astronauts on American rockets.”
Both, SpaceX and NASA agree commercial crew development is the highest priority and have plans to launch astronauts from USA soil to the International Space Station as early as next year, if all testing and development requirements go well.