Image Source: @NASASpaceflight via Twitter
After almost a decade, NASA's Commercial Crew Program aims launch astronauts from the United States on American-made spacecraft. 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!
Engineers are in the final phase of testing their updated version of Crew Dragon. During this phase, SpaceX will conduct a vital In-Flight Abort (IFA) test mission, 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.
"Static fire of Falcon 9 complete – targeting January 18 for an in-flight demonstration of Crew Dragon’s launch escape system, which will verify the spacecraft’s ability to carry astronauts to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency during ascent."
Static fire of Falcon 9 complete – targeting January 18 for an in-flight demonstration of Crew Dragon’s launch escape system, which will verify the spacecraft’s ability to carry astronauts to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency during ascent— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 11, 2020
SpaceX teams overlook the craft and data to make sure its ready to fly. As soon as the test was completed, SpaceX began preparations to drain the rocket of its fuel, the craft is powered by cooled kerosene and liquid oxygen. They will then lower Falcon 9 and take it to a nearby hangar area to attach Dragon on top, ahead of the vital In-Flight Abort demonstration mission scheduled for next week, on Saturday January 18 at 8:00 a.m. EST. NASA Statement:
"NASA and SpaceX are targeting no earlier than Saturday, January 18. for an In-Flight Abort Test of the Crew Dragon spacecraft from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, pending U.S. Air Force Eastern Range approval."
For the upcoming IFA test, Falcon 9 will carry Dragon, and will only remain in motion for a short period of time, SpaceX will simulate a launch emergency about 90 seconds after liftoff from Pad39A. The rocket will intentionally explode in the Atlantic Ocean. Engineers will provoke the explosion 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. They will clean up all the debris out of the water.
Simultaneously, as the Falcon 9 explodes and falls into the ocean, Crew 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. The SuperDraco engines can move Dragon half a mile in only 7.5 seconds, equivalent to a peak velocity of 436 miles per hour. 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 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.
Next weekend, we will witness this intentional Falcon 9 explosion, and see if Crew Dragon will survive this In-Flight Abort mission live.
Good luck to SpaceX and NASA!