SpaceX destroys rocket in test of Crew Dragon in-flight abort
January 19, 2020
— A SpaceX launch has ended in an abort, dropping its crew capsule into the ocean and leaving its rocket in pieces — exactly to plan.
In the last major trial before it can begin launching astronauts, SpaceX conducted an in-flight abort test with its Crew Dragon spacecraft on Sunday (Jan. 19). The company purposely triggered the uncrewed capsule to fly away from its booster in a demonstration of the Crew Dragon's emergency launch escape system.
"I am super fired up. This was great, really great," said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO, at a post-test press conference. "As far as we can tell thus far, it was a picture-perfect mission. It went as well as one could possibly expect and is a reflection of the dedication and hard work by the SpaceX and NASA teams."
"Another amazing milestone is complete for our very soon to be project, which is launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "Congratulations to SpaceX and the entire NASA team on this final major flight milestone that we needed to accomplish."
Flying atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Crew Dragon lifted off at 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT) on a trajectory that mimicked the ascent that astronauts will follow on missions to the International Space Station.
At 84 seconds into the launch, though, at about 12 miles altitude (19 kilometers), SpaceX triggered the Crew Dragon to purposely initiate an abort.
"That is kind of where we hit the 'sweet spot' of the conditions that we think is the right place to test in," Benji Reed, SpaceX's director of crew mission management, said at a pre-launch briefing on Friday.
The Falcon 9 rocket's first stage engines cut off, the Crew Dragon separated and its eight SuperDraco thrusters ignited for about eight seconds. The spacecraft then coasted up to about 25 miles high (40 kilometers), where the Crew Dragon's rear-mounted trunk was jettisoned and the capsule's smaller Draco thrusters fired to re-orient the vehicle for its descent to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Falcon 9, meanwhile, was left to plunge back to Earth and break apart in a dramatic fireball under the aerodynamic stress of the atmosphere. The rocket's first stage had previously helped launch three satellite missions in 2018.
"There are definitely no big pieces of the rocket left," said Musk. "In general, we would not expect to recovery anything [of the Falcon] in a launch abort scenario."
Two minutes after executing the abort, the Crew Dragon began the deployment of its two drogue and four main parachutes to slow its fall and set up a splashdown some 20 miles (30 kilometers) off the shore of Florida. The spacecraft hit the water about nine minutes after it left the launch pad.
SpaceX staged recovery ships near the splashdown site, where they were joined by members of the U.S. Air Force's Detachment-3 to practice approaching the spacecraft as they would in the case of an actual rescue operation when there are astronauts on board.
Instead of a crew, the Dragon for Sunday's test flew with two anthropomorphic test devices, or human-shaped dummies, strapped into seats outfitted with sensors to measure the forces exerted on the spacecraft. SpaceX anticipated prior to the test that the astronaut stand-ins would experience no more than four times the force of gravity during the abort.
"The highest g-state was about 3.5 g's," said Bridenstine. "That's impressive. It looked like it might have been a rough ride, but the data didn't bear that out. I think that gives our astronauts confidence that the ride might not be so bad if we have to execute one of these launch abort capabilities."
The Crew Dragon that flew the in-flight abort was built to be identical to the capsules that will fly with astronauts, omitting only some of the interior equipment not required for the test.
Sunday's test follows several past milestones, including a pad abort test in 2015, which qualified the escape system in the case of an emergency while the Dragon was still on the launch pad. SpaceX also conducted a static fire, igniting the Crew Dragon's SuperDraco thrusters while the spacecraft was secured to the ground at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in November 2019.
A Crew Dragon, without astronauts on board, was also successfully flown on a demo mission to the International Space Station in March 2019. That vehicle was also intended to fly the in-flight abort but was lost in the lead up to a static fire a month later.
The completion of the in-flight abort test brings SpaceX a significant step closer to launching its first crewed mission. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are assigned to test fly the Crew Dragon to the space station, possibly as soon as this Spring. The two practiced donning their spacesuits and heading out to the launch pad prior to Sunday's test.
"We feel really excited about the progress that SpaceX and NASA have made to this point and kind of shows us that we're getting really close to our flight," said Hurley in a SpaceX pre-test video. "So to see all these capabilities all put together, all the teams together and to be able to launch this vehicle, it is just a huge boost of confidence."
An uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft rockets away from a Falcon 9 rocket during an in-flight abort test launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (SpaceX)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes in a fireball, as expected, after it launched a Crew Dragon on an in-flight abort test. (SpaceX)
A SpaceX Crew Dragon launches atop a Falcon 9 rocket on an in-flight abort test from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (NASA/Tony Gray)
View of the stripped down interior of SpaceX's Crew Dragon for the in-flight abort test, including two anthropomorphic test devices (dummies) that were strapped into instrumented seats. (SpaceX)
Mission patch for the Crew Dragon In-Flight Abort Test. (SpaceX)