Imagine hurtling towards space aboard a capsule attached to Falcon Heavy. Suddenly there's an engine failure. What do you do?
Thankfully, SpaceX's engineers have designed a fail-safe for this situation with the Crew Dragon's abort engines. If anything were to happen to Falcon Heavy, the Crew Dragon capsule could detach using its engines, get to a safe distance, and then deploy parachutes to descend safely to Earth.
Yesterday, SpaceX successfully fired up the engines the Crew Dragon during a ground test in Cape Canaveral, Florida. This paves the way for a crucial test flight in the upcoming months, followed by crewed test flights next year.
Emergency abort engines
The emergency abort engines, known as SuperDracos, have caused a delay in SpaceX's plans — in April, a Crew Dragon test capsule exploded.
After several months of investigation, the company's engineers discovered this was due to a leaking valve that allowed propellant to leak into another system, causing the capsule to go up in flames.
Full duration static fire test of Crew Dragon’s launch escape system complete – SpaceX and NASA teams are now reviewing test data and working toward an in-flight demonstration of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities pic.twitter.com/CMHvMRBQcW— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 13, 2019
The new successful ground tests follow a redesign of the capsule and have put an end to SpaceX's investigation.
Crewed missions coming soon
The next step is a test flight and a manned test flight before the passenger Crew Dragon spacecraft can be deemed fully operational.
SpaceX team has completed 13 successful tests in a row of upgraded Mark 3 parachutes for Crew Dragon. Most recent test demonstrated the parachute system’s ability to land the spacecraft safely in the unlikely event that one of the four main parachutes fails. pic.twitter.com/VJzDeS8UAG— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 3, 2019
SpaceX also recently successfully completed tests of the parachute system that would bring the capsule back down to Earth in the case of an emergency.
The last major test SpaceX will do is for its first crewed mission. The company will send two NASA astronauts — Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — to the ISS for a quick visit before sending them back to Earth.
The safe travel of these astronauts will allow SpaceX to start regularly sending crews back and forth between the ISS and Earth.