Crew Dragon In-Flight Abort's successful completion clears way for crewed flights

Katie Ramirez
January 20, 2020

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from its Florida launch pad to begin an in-flight test of the Crew Dragon space taxi's abort system. No one was aboard for the test flight, just two mannequins.

After some weather-caused delays, SpaceX launched the uncrewed Crew Dragon spaceship atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:30 a.m. ET (7:30 a.m. PT). Powerful thrusters on the capsule propelled it up and out of harm's way, as the rocket engines deliberately shut down and the booster tumbled out of control in a giant fireball.

The capsule reached an altitude of about 44 kilometres before parachuting into the ocean just offshore to bring the test flight to a close.

Flights controllers at SpaceX's California headquarters excitedly cheered at the accomplishment, as the test is sign of working safety protocols.

Everything appeared to go well despite the choppy seas and overcast skies.

SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites into orbit Monday night from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The capsule also had no floors or flight panel, but contained simulators to better record how those components reacted during all stages of launch, jettison, and landing.

"That is kind of where we hit the "sweet spot" of the conditions that we think is the right place to test in", Benji Reed, SpaceX's director of crew mission management, said at a pre-launch briefing on Friday.

"This test is very important to us ... a huge practice session", Reed added.

This was considered to be the last major milestone for California's SpaceX company before the USA space agency (Nasa) certifies the firm to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) later this year.

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The test is crucial to qualify the capsule to fly humans to the International Space Station, something NASA expects to happen as soon as mid-2020.

Since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's shuttle programme ended in 2011, it has used Russian ships to get its astronauts to the International Space Station.

"We are purposely failing a launch vehicle to make sure that our abort system on the spacecraft, that will be flying for our crews, works", Lueders said in advance of the demo.

Both Bridenstine and Musk said they are looking forward to next steps, which includes additional parachute tests and analyzing the data collected from the Crew Dragon capsule.

About 90 seconds into launch, SpaceX will trigger the launch escape system on the Falcon 9 rocket, created to carry the capsule away from the rocket; Kristin Fisher reports. Sign up to receive the week's news in space. Teams from the Air Force and SpaceX were stationed to recover it as they rehearsed getting a crew out of Crew Dragon at sea. That separation was the goal of Sunday's test.

Two drogue parachutes that were on the Crew Dragon capsule were deployed around four minutes and thirty seconds after launch.

But Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the "go for launch" for Hurley and Behnken might depend on how long the agency wanted the men to stay on the space station.

During a December test, the Starliner was forced to abort its mission to dock at the International Space Station.

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