Sunday, NASA and SpaceX tested the last major milestone for SpaceX before NASA allows its astronauts on board: a crucial safety system of Crew Dragon. The test was on the in-flight abort system to ensure that the capsule can carry astronauts away safely from an exploding rocket.
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
It was a quick test. At 10:30 AM, ET SpaceX launched one of its used Falcon 9 rockets with a Crew Dragon on top from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Approximately 84 seconds after liftoff, the Falcon 9 rocket was 12 miles in the air when the engines of the booster stage were shut down.
The purpose was to simulate a failure. The rocket was then ripped apart and exploded as thrusters on the Crew Dragon capsule propelled it away from the rocket and up to an altitude of about 27 miles.
The Dragon capsule then fell down in the Atlantic Ocean about 9 minutes after launch. The mission was a success.
Splashdown of Crew Dragon in the Atlantic Ocean! pic.twitter.com/V1C2Xfd9Mk— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 19, 2020
There was no one on board this time except for two test dummies with sensors to measure the forces a real crew would experience during such an incident.
“We want to practice, practice, practice,” Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX, had said during a press conference on Friday. “We test like we fly, and we want to practice like we fly.”
This escape system had indeed been tested before, but only when the Crew Dragon was on the ground. That's why it was crucial to see this process in action while the capsule is flying into the sky on top of a rocket.
The rocket could not be recovered but SpaceX expected this. It burst into flames shortly after the Crew Dragon separation. “We expect there to be some sort of ignition and probably a fireball of some kind,” Reed had said before the launch.
With this final stage complete, we can now expect the next flight of the Crew Dragon to be crewed. It is an exciting time for NASA and SpaceX.