At Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, during the morning hours this past Sunday (Jan, 19th), SpaceX conducted the final uncrewed test of their Crew Dragon space capsule. This was the all-important in-flight abort test, the purpose of which was to validate the crew capsule’s escape capabilities in the event of an unexpected emergency during launch.
The event, which was live-streamed by NASA TV, was a complete success and saw the Crew Dragon successfully separate from its Falcon 9 launcher before being retrieved at sea. With this test complete, NASA and SpaceX will be moving forward with the first crewed mission. Known as Crew Demo-2, this mission will see two astronauts launched aboard the Crew Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS) later this year.
The test was originally planned to take place on Saturday, Jan. 18th, but was delayed due to high winds at the launch site. The launch finally took place on Sunday morning with the Falcon 9 lifting off from Launch Complex 39A at 10:30 AM EST (07:30 PST). About a minute and a half later, when the rocket had reached an altitude of approximately 19,000 meters (62,000 ft), the abort sequence began.
This began with the nine Merlin engines on the Falcon 9‘s shutting down and the Crew Dragon‘s SuperDraco thrusters commencing their firing sequence. Less than two minutes after the launch, SpaceX tweeted footage of the first stage of the Falcon 9 and the Crew Dragon successfully separating (shown above).
The crew capsule then proceeded at a top speed of Mach 2.2 to reach its peak altitude of about 40,000 m (131,000 ft) while the Falcon 9 fell away. The rocket, a recycled first stage booster that had flown on three previous occasions, was deliberately exploded to simulate an in-flight emergency failure and fell into the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, once at its peak altitude, the Crew Dragon deployed its four main parachutes and engaged its smaller Draco thrusters to make a controlled landing. Roughly nine minutes after launch, the capsule splashed down in the Atlantic roughly 32 km (20 mi) east of the Kennedy Space Center. It was then retrieved by SpaceX’s “Go Searcher” recovery vessel, which used its ship-mounted sling to hoist the Crew Dragon aboard.
Both the ship and the Crew Dragon capsule arrived back in port by 07:00 PM EST (04:00 PM PST), less than nine hours after launch and splashdown. A second recovery vessel retrieved the intact trunk of the Crew Dragon, which jettisoned as part of the in-flight abort test and also landed in the Atlantic. In orbital flights, these trunks burn up in the atmosphere and are not retrieved.
This test was a vital step for SpaceX and the Crew Dragon capsule, which will be used to provide commercial launch services to the ISS as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program. SpaceX is one of several private aerospace companies that have been contracted through this program to restore domestic launch capability to US soil – something that has not existed since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.
With this vital test complete, SpaceX and NASA are now free to move ahead with the next missions, designated Crew Dragon Demo-2. This will be the first crewed test flight of the crew capsule and is scheduled to take place later this year. For the sake of the mission, two NASA astronauts (Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken) will be sent on a 14-day mission to the ISS.
Originally scheduled for February, Musk said after Sunday’s in-flight abort test that it would likely take place in the second quarter of this year – between April and the end of June. However, as Spaceflight Now reported, he also indicated that all the necessary elements could in place at Cape Canaveral sooner than that:
“The hardware necessary for [the] first crewed launch, we believe, will be ready by the end of February. However, there’s still a lot of work once the hardware is ready to cross-check everything, triple-check, quadruple-check, go over everything again so that every stone has been turned over three or four times.
“And there is also the schedule for getting to (the) space station because space station has a lot of things going to it, so what’s the right timing for this? The sort of collective wisdom at this point is we’re highly confident the hardware will be ready in Quarter 1, most likely the end of February, but no later than March, and that it and it would appear probable that the first crew launch would occur in the 2nd Quarter.”
Pending completion of all tests, the Crew Dragon will begin servicing missions to the ISS as part of SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Services-2 (CRS-2) contract. Other companies awarded contracts include Orbital ATK and the Sierra Nevada Corporation, both of which are pursuing the development of reusable spacecraft to help restore NASA’s domestic launch capability.
Elon Musk also tweeted a new animation that shows what a crewed flight of the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon capsule would look like. Check it out here: