SpaceX tests rocket for critical Crew Dragon in-flight abort launch on Jan. 18

SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft inside a SpaceX processing facility at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft inside a SpaceX processing facility at Cape Canaveral in Florida. (Image credit: SpaceX)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX has fired up the booster that will fly the company’s upcoming in-flight abort test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft. The uncrewed mission will test a vital safety system designed to protect astronauts during flight.

SpaceX plans to use its Crew Dragon capsule to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, but before that can happen, the company needs to prove that the spacecraft has what it takes to keep those astronauts safe in the event of a catastrophic rocket failure. To do that, SpaceX aims to launch the in-flight abort test on Jan. 18 to demonstrate Crew Dragon's launch abort system designed to pull the capsule free of its rocket during an emergency.

A hot fire test of a Falcon 9 rocket occurred on Saturday (Jan. 11) at NASA's historic Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, SpaceX confirmed on Twitter. That booster will be attached to SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule before its upcoming launch. 

Video: Watch SpaceX's Crew Dragon Abort System in Close-Up Action 

But before the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon can launch, SpaceX engineers had to put the rocket through a practice launch countdown.

The nine Merlin engines on the Falcon 9's first stage  ignited on Saturday morning at 10:10 a.m. EST (1510 GMT) as white smoke billowed around the rocket. Hold down clamps kept the rocket attached firmly to the ground at Launch Pad 39A — the same launch site that once hosted both the mighty Saturn V as well as NASA's fleet of space shuttles.

The brief test, known as a static-fire test is a standard part of prelaunch procedures and one of the last major milestones before liftoff. During the test, teams loaded the Falcon’s super-chilled propellants — kerosene and liquid oxygen — into the rocket before igniting the first stage's nine Merlin 1D engines. 

The Merlin engines throttled up to produce 1.7 million pounds of thrust before powering down. Shortly after the test, SpaceX tweeted it was a success

"Static fire of Falcon 9 complete — targeting Jan. 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 orbit."

Related: Emergency Launch Abort Systems of SpaceX and Boeing Explained

The Falcon 9 rocket rolled out of its hangar on Thursday (Jan. 9) and went vertical on the launch pad in advance of the planned test-firing of its nine first stage engines on Saturday. The two-stage rocket is expected to liftoff next Saturday, Jan. 18 at 8:00 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) marking the second launch of the year and the second for SpaceX in just two weeks. (SpaceX's first launch of the year lofted the company’s third batch of Starlink satellites.) 

SpaceX's next flight, called an In-Flight Abort test flight (IFA for short) will feature a Crew Dragon spacecraft launched atop a veteran Falcon 9 rocket. Shortly after liftoff, onboard software will intentionally trigger the spacecraft's launch abort system in mid-flight. That system — comprised of eight SuperDraco abort engines built into the craft's hull — will pull the Crew Dragon free of its launcher before gliding back to Earth under parachute. 

Related: SpaceX's Crew Dragon Demo-1 Test Flight in Pictures

The abort system is a key safety feature designed to safeguard astronauts during launch. In October 2018, a similar abort system on a Russian Soyuz rocket carried NASA astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin to safety when their booster failed during flight

"The demonstration of Crew Dragon's launch escape system is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program and is one of the final major tests for the company before NASA astronauts will fly aboard the spacecraft," NASA officials wrote in a commercial crew program update

SpaceX is one of two commercial companies (Boeing is the other) NASA contracted to build private space taxis to fly its astronauts to and from the space station. Crew Dragon has already visited the orbiting outpost once — last March, on a historic uncrewed test flight called Demo-1.

Saturday's high-altitude abort demonstration will be the final major test flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft before it is cleared to fly astronauts. If all goes well with the abort test, the California-based company can start prepping for its first crewed flight, called Demo-2, which will carry NASA's Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to and from the International Space Station.  

Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Amy Thompson
Contributing Writer

Amy Thompson is a Florida-based space and science journalist, who joined as a contributing writer in 2015. She's passionate about all things space and is a huge science and science-fiction geek. Star Wars is her favorite fandom, with that sassy little droid, R2D2 being her favorite. She studied science at the University of Florida, earning a degree in microbiology. Her work has also been published in Newsweek, VICE, Smithsonian, and many more. Now she chases rockets, writing about launches, commercial space, space station science, and everything in between.

  • Jack Hagerty
    Good summary, but the crew of Nick Hague and Alexey Ovchinin was not saved by the LES in the Soyuz launch. That had been jettisoned well before the booster emergency. They used a late-stage abort maneuver that let the capsule reenter ballistic on its own, since it was high enough.