KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — SpaceX's test of its Crew Dragon's in-flight abort system appeared to go without any major hitches Sunday morning, paving the way for NASA astronauts to head back into space from U.S. soil in the next few months.
- SpaceX tested capability of astronaut escape systems in case of abort
- Falcon 9 rocket destroyed in explosion as capsule thrusted away
- Next time Crew Dragon lifts off, astronauts likely will be aboard
- LAUNCH SCHEDULE: Upcoming launches from Florida's Space Coast
- PREVIOUSLY: Strange Celestial Sighting Turns Out to Be SpaceX’s Starlink Satellites
- WATCH IT: Launch replay ▼
The test launch, a 9-minute flight, was to demonstrate that if something were to go wrong during launch, the Crew Dragon capsule could safely remove astronauts from the Falcon 9 rocket, and hopefully, harm's way.
"I'm super fired up," SpaceX CEO and found Elon Musk said. "It's just going to be wonderful to get astronauts back into orbit from American soil after almost a decade of not being able to do so. That's just super exciting."
The test was supposed to take place Saturday morning, strong winds and rough seas, forced SpaceX to push the test to 8 a.m. ET Sunday.
Based on the numerous cheers from workers overheard during the launch, it appears that @SpaceX's Dragon did everything it was designed to do, including the explosion at the end of the video.— Spectrum News 13 (@MyNews13) January 19, 2020
Read more about what this test was so important.https://t.co/t0vwfTTLYA pic.twitter.com/BzUAQ3uhZh
Congratulations to the @NASA and @SpaceX team for a successful In-Flight Abort Test! This critical test puts us on the cusp of once again launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. Spacecraft recovery operations are underway. pic.twitter.com/5ZzEVesAJW— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) January 19, 2020
The Falcon 9 rocket, with an uncrewed Crew Dragon capsule on top, roared off the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A at 10:30 a.m. ET.
Then, 84 seconds into liftoff and about 12 miles up, the capsule fired its thrusters, separating it from the Falcon 9. The thrusters pushed the capsule away from the rocket, which tumbled and exploded in a fireball.
The Crew Dragon continued to an altitude of about 27 miles before heading back down. As it fell, it maneuvered into position so it could deploy safety parachutes to slow its descent to the Atlantic Ocean.
The four orange and white parachutes deployed, and the spacecraft splash downed in rough seas, about 20 miles off the coast, where SpaceX crews in boats waited to recover the capsule.
The Crew Dragon wasn't entirely empty. Two test dummies were inside, packed with sensors to help researchers understand what astronauts would experience if they were to be on board during an emergency escape.
The importance of launch escape was demonstrated in 2018 when two astronauts, an American and a Russian, were pulled to safety during a failed launch from Kazakhstan. They experienced up to seven times the force of gravity during the abort but walked away from the accident.
"The main objective of this test is to show we can carry the astronauts safely away," SpaceX Director of Crew Mission Management Benji Reed said. "In the event there were astronauts on board — that's the whole goal."
The SpaceX in-flight abort system, Musk said, should be gentler for the crew and is good from the launch pad all the way to orbit.
SpaceX said would try to clean up as much Falcon 9 debris that fell into the ocean as possible. The company had said it wasn't entirely sure what would happen with the rocket but anticipated an explosion of some kind. Earlier, Playalinda Beach had been closed to visitors in case debris were to fall too close to shore.
NASA's commercial crew program manager, Kathy Lueders, told the Associated Press that the launch abort test was "our last open milestone" before allowing SpaceX to launch Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken on board a Crew Dragon to the International Space Station as early as this spring.
SpaceX has a quick turnaround for its next Florida launch. The company is scheduled to send up another Falcon 9 rocket from Florida's Space Coast on Tuesday, this time from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The payload is another batch of Starlink satellites. That launch will be late morning or early afternoon.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this article.