Key Facts and Timeline for SpaceX Crewed Dragon’s First Test Flight May 6 – Watch Live

The first critical test flight of SpaceX’s crewed Dragon that will soon launch American astronauts back to orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil is now less than two days away.

The test flight – called the Pad Abort Test – is slated for the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 6, if all goes well. The key facts and a timeline of the test events are outlined herein.

The test vehicle will reach roughly a mile in altitude (5000 feet, 1500 meters) and last only about 90 seconds in duration from beginning to end.

It constitutes a crucial first test of the crew capsule escape system that will save astronauts lives in a split second in the unlikely event of a catastrophic launch pad failure with the Falcon 9 rocket.

The May 6 pad abort test will be performed from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The test will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

SpaceX has just released new images showing the Dragon crew capsule and trunk section being moved to the launch pad and being positioned atop the launch mount on SLC-40. See above and below. Together the Dragon assembly stands about 20 feet (5 meters) tall.

SpaceX Pad Abort Test vehicle being transported at the Florida launch complex. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Pad Abort Test vehicle being transported at the Florida launch complex. Credit: SpaceX

A test dummy is seated inside. And SpaceX now says the dummy is not named “Buster” despite an earlier announcement from the company.

“Buster the Dummy already works for a great show you may have heard of called MythBusters. Our dummy prefers to remain anonymous for the time being,” SpaceX said today.

So, only time will tell if that particular mission fact will ever be revealed.

You can watch the Pad Abort Test via a live webcast on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The test window opens at 7 a.m. EDT May 6 and extends until 2:30 p.m. EDT into the afternoon.

The webcast will start about 20 minutes prior to the opening of the window. NASA will also provide periodic updates about the test at their online Commercial Crew Blog.

The current weather forecast predicts a 70% GO for favorable weather conditions during the lengthy test window.

Since the Pad Abort Test is specifically designed to be a development test, in order to learn crucial things about the performance of the escape system, it doesn’t have to be perfect to be valuable.

And delays due to technical issues are a very significant possibility.

“No matter what happens on test day, SpaceX is going to learn a lot,” said Jon Cowart, NASA’s partner manager for SpaceX at a May 1 media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center press site. “One test is worth a thousand good analyses.”

The test is critical for the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

Here’s a graphic illustrating the May 6 SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of planned events.

Graphic illustrates the SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of events planned for May 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 40.  Credit: SpaceX
Graphic illustrates the SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of events planned for May 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 40. Credit: SpaceX

The Crew Dragon will accelerate to nearly 100 mph in barely one second. The test will last less than two minutes and the ship will travel over one mile in the first 20 seconds alone.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds, to carry astronauts to safety.

The eight SuperDraco’s will propel Dragon nearly 100 meters (328 ft) in 2 seconds, and more than half a kilometer (1/3 mi) in just over 5 seconds.

SpaceX likens the test to “an ejection seat for a fighter pilot, but instead of ejecting the pilot out of the spacecraft, the entire spacecraft is “ejected” away from the launch vehicle.”

Here’s a timeline of events from SpaceX:

T-0: The eight SuperDracos ignite simultaneously and reach maximum thrust, propelling the spacecraft off the pad.

T+.5s: After half a second of vertical flight, Crew Dragon pitches toward the ocean and continues its controlled burn. The SuperDraco engines throttle to control the trajectory based on real-time measurements from the vehicle’s sensors.

T+5s: The abort burn is terminated once all propellant is consumed and Dragon coasts for just over 15 seconds to its highest point about 1500 meters (.93 mi) above the launch pad.

T+21s: The trunk is jettisoned and the spacecraft begins a slow rotation with its heat shield pointed toward the ground again.

T+25s: Small parachutes, called drogues, are deployed first during a 4-6 second window following trunk separation.

T+35s: Once the drogue parachutes stabilize the vehicle, three main parachutes deploy and further slow the spacecraft before splashdown.

T+107s: Dragon splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean about 2200 meters (1.4 mi) downrange of the launch pad.

SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted splashdown into the Ocean.

Koenigsmann notes that the SpaceX abort system provides for emergency escape all the way to orbit, unlike any prior escape system such as the conventional launch abort systems (LAS) mounted on top of the capsule.

The next Falcon 9 launch is slated for mid-June carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS. On April 14, a flawless Falcon 9 launch boosted the SpaceX CRS-6 Dragon to the ISS.

There was no attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage during the most recent launch on April 27. Due to the heavy weight of the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite there was not enough residual fuel for a landing attempt on SpaceX’s ocean going barge.

The next landing attempt is set for the CRS-7 mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to Unveil Manned Dragon ‘Space Taxi’ on May 29

SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter berthed to the International Space Station during recently concluded SpaceX-3 mission in May 2014. An upgraded, manrated version will carry US astronauts to space in the next two to three years. Credit: NASA
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SpaceX CEO, founder and chief designer Elon Musk is set to unveil the manned version of his firms commercial Dragon spaceship later this week, setting in motion an effort that he hopes will soon restore America’s capability to launch US astronauts to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017.

Musk will personally introduce SpaceX’s ‘Space Taxi’ dubbed ‘Dragon V2’ at what amounts to sort of a world premiere event on May 29 at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, CA, according to an official announcement this evening (May 27) from SpaceX.

“SpaceX’s new Dragon V2 spacecraft is a next generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts into space,” according to the SpaceX statement.

The manned Dragon will launch atop the powerful SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket from a SpaceX pad on the Florida Space Coast.

Dragon was initially developed as a commercial unmanned resupply freighter to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of supplies and science experiments to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016.

Musk is making good on a recent comment he posted to twitter on April 29, with respect to the continuing fallout from the deadly crisis in Ukraine which has resulted in some US economic sanctions imposed against Russia, that now potentially threaten US access to the ISS in a boomerang action from the Russian government:

“Sounds like this might be a good time to unveil the new Dragon Mk 2 spaceship that @SpaceX has been working on with @NASA. No trampoline needed,” Musk tweeted.

“Cover drops on May 29. Actual flight design hardware of crew Dragon, not a mockup,” Musk added.

The ‘Dragon V2’ is an upgraded, man rated version of the unmanned spaceship that can carry a mix of cargo and up to a seven crewmembers to the ISS.

NASA astronauts and industry experts check out the crew accommodations in the Dragon spacecraft under development by SpaceX. The evaluation in Hawthorne, Calif., on Jan. 30, 2012, was part of SpaceX's Commercial Crew Development Round 2 agreement with NASA's Commercial Crew Program. Credit: NASA
NASA astronauts and industry experts check out the crew accommodations in the Dragon spacecraft under development by SpaceX. The evaluation in Hawthorne, Calif., on Jan. 30, 2012, was part of SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Development Round 2 agreement with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Credit: NASA

Dragon is among a trio of US private sector manned spaceships being developed with seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in a public/private partnership to develop a next-generation crew transportation vehicle to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS by 2017 – a capability totally lost following the space shuttle’s forced retirement in 2011.

Since that day, US astronauts have been totally dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsules for ferry rides to orbit and back.

The Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser ‘space taxis’ are also vying for funding in the next round of contracts to be awarded by NASA around late summer 2014.

All three company’s have been making excellent progress in meeting their NASA mandated milestones in the current contract period known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative (CCiCAP) under the auspices of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

However, US progress getting the space taxis actually built and flying has been repeatedly stifled by the US Congress who have severely cut NASA’s budget request for the Commercial Crew Program by about half each year. Thus forcing NASA to delay the first manned orbital test flights by at least 18 months from 2015 to 2017.

The situation with regard to US dependency on Russian rocketry to reach the ISS has always been awkward.

But it finally took on new found importance and urgency from politicos in Washington, DC, since the ongoing crisis in Ukraine this year exposed US vulnerability in a wide range of space endeavors affecting not just astronaut rides to the ISS but also the launch of the most critical US national security surveillance satellites essential to US defense.

US space vulnerability became obvious to everyone when Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin. who is in charge of space and defense industries, said that US sanctions could “boomerang” against the US space program and that perhaps NASA should “deliver their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL.   File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Rogozin also threatened to cut off exports of the Russian made RD-180 rocket engines which power the first stage of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket used to launch numerous US National Security spy satellites.

“Moscow is banning Washington from using Russian-made rocket engines, which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit,” Rogozin said at a media briefing held on May 13.

NASA is also a hefty user of the Atlas V for many of the agency’s science and communication satellites like the Curiosity Mars rover, MAVEN Mars orbiter, MMS, Juno Jupiter orbiter and TDRS.

Musk and SpaceX have also filed lawsuits against the US Air Force to legally block the importation of the RD-180 engines by ULA for the Atlas V as a violation of the US economic sanctions.

So overall, US space policy is in a murky and uncertain situation and Musk clearly aims for SpaceX to be a central and significant player in a wide range of US space activities, both manned and unmanned.

Read my earlier articles about the Atlas V controversy, Rogozin’s statements, Musk’s suit and more about the effects of economic sanctions imposed by the US and Western nations in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea; here, here, here, here and here.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 3rd operational Dragon cargo resupply mission completed the 30 day SpaceX-3 flight to the ISS with a successful Pacific Ocean splashdown on May 18.

SpaceX will webcast the Dragon unveiling event LIVE on May 29 at 7 p.m. PST for anyone wishing to watch at: www.spacex.com/webcast

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com