Editor's note: SpaceX has delayed the launch of its Crew Dragon in-flight abort test flight to Sunday, Jan. 19, at 8 a.m. EST (1300 GMT). Read our full story.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX will intentionally destroy one of its rockets in the name of safety this weekend.
This is the last major hurdle the company needs to clear before its Crew Dragon spacecraft can begin to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Scheduled for a 4-hour launch window opening at 8:00 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) Saturday (Jan. 18), the mission stars an unpiloted crew capsule that will blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA's Kennedy Space Center here in Florida. (You can watch the flight here at Space.com, courtesy of SpaceX, or directly through the company's YouTube page.) Its goal: to test the spacecraft's emergency escape system.
When NASA's fleet of space shuttles was retired in 2011, the agency shifted its focus to the commercial sector, selecting SpaceX and Boeing as its future space taxi providers. These two companies have worked to build a spacecraft capable of safely carrying crew, under contracts worth a total of $6.8 billion. Once operational, their vehicles — SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner — will be NASA's primary means of transporting astronauts to space.
But before that can happen, SpaceX has to prove that its Crew Dragon capsule has what it takes to keep astronauts safe during flight. One of the difficult lessons learned from the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 was that all future crewed vehicles would need emergency escape systems, which the shuttle did not have.
While in-flight anomalies are rare, they do happen. Most recently, October 2018, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin were carried to safety by a similar abort system when their rocket failed during flight. NASA wants to ensure that, if one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets were to have a similar anomaly, its astronauts would still be brought home safely; this is what the in-flight abort test is all about.
There are two approaches to such escape systems. The spacecraft of the Mercury and Apollo eras, as well as the Russian Soyuz capsule that astronauts ride in today, relied on a rocket that pulled the spacecraft away from its launch vehicle. In contrast, both the Crew Dragon and the Starliner use a built-in system to push the spacecraft to safety.
Embedded within the outer hull of the Dragon capsule are eight engines called SuperDracos. If the vehicle's computer senses that something is amiss during flight, it will trigger these thrusters to fire. Then, the SuperDracos will push the Crew Dragon up and away from the rocket. Once the capsule is at a safe distance from the troubled rocket, the Crew Dragon will deploy its parachutes and land in the Atlantic Ocean, where recovery vessels will retrieve the capsule and the crew.
The company has conducted similar testing on the ground, but this is the first time the company is executing the entire escape process midflight. Here's the breakdown.
A used Falcon 9 rocket, stripped of its iconic landing legs and grid fins, will sit perched atop its launchpad at Kennedy Space Center's historic Launch Complex 39A. The rocket will roar to life at 8:00 a.m. EST (1300 GMT). About a minute and a half after liftoff, the Crew Dragon's SuperDraco engines will fire, separating the capsule from the rocket.
As the capsule is being pushed away, the rocket's main engines will cut off; the Falcon 9 will then fall back to Earth,, breaking apart during its descent. SpaceX will recover the rocket debris at the end of the test, according to a recent NASA statement.
Meanwhile, the capsule's parachutes will allow for a soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean, where recovery teams will be standing by to scoop the vehicle out of the ocean. It is currently unknown where precisely Crew Dragon will splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.
Weather conditions on launch day will impact how much of the action spectators on the Space Coast will see. But fireworks have been advertised: Following a successful test firing of the rocket on Jan. 11, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk tweeted that the Falcon would be "destroyed in Dragon fire."
Saturday's mission will be the fourth and final trip for this booster. In 2018, it made three trips to space, lofting the first Bangladeshi satellite, an Indonesian communications satellite and then an epic rideshare mission that launched an eclectic stack of 64 satellites.
No one will be on board the Crew Dragon during this test, but SpaceX is treating the drill as if it were an actual emergency. To that end, SpaceX outfitted one of its boats with a helicopter landing pad designed to facilitate the recovery of the Crew Dragon during nominal and emergency landings alike.
This test is the last major hurdle that SpaceX must clear before it can launch astronauts. As such, both NASA and SpaceX will be paying close attention to the test. In May 2015, the company conducted a ground-based version of this test, known as a pad abort, designed to mimic an emergency prior to launch. During that test, the system performed exactly as intended.
But not every test has gone according to plan. Last April, while the company was test-firing the Crew Dragon's SuperDraco engines following a brief sojourn at the International Space Station, the capsule exploded. An investigation revealed that a leaky valve caused the anomaly, and SpaceX modified the abort system. The company successfully test-fired the system in November 2019.
Once the Crew Dragon is cleared to carry humans, SpaceX will fly two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, to the space station for a two-week stay. If that flight goes smoothly, NASA will certify Dragon, and the vehicle will be able to begin regular crewed flights, even carrying international partners.
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