SpaceX has successfully tested the ejection capabilities of the Crew Dragon astronaut ferry ship from a Falcon 9 rocket Sunday morning.
The 10:30 a.m. launch saw the capsule make an emergency ejection before the rocket exploded in flight. The unmanned Crew Drogan was able to distance itself from the explosion and deploy parachutes to successfully land in the Atlantic 9 minutes after liftoff.
Wath the launch in its entirety below:
The launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on a dramatic in-flight test of the emergency escape system built into the company’s Crew Dragon astronaut ferry ship was delayed 24 hours on Saturday because of high winds and rough seas in the capsule’s off-shore recovery zone.
The Falcon 9, featuring a thrice-flown first stage and a fueled but engine-less second stage, is expected to be destroyed during the test while the unpiloted Crew Dragon capsule, equipped with eight powerful Super Draco rocket engines, is boosted to safety before splashing down about 20 miles northeast of Cape Canaveral.
Launch from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center originally was targeted for 8 a.m. ET Saturday, the opening of a four-hour window. But forecasters warned that expected high winds and rough seas off shore could cause problems for the Crew Dragon’s recovery.
Mission managers later pushed launch back to the end of the window, and early Saturday, SpaceX tweeted the launch would be delayed 24 hours.
“Standing down from today’s in-flight Crew Dragon launch escape test attempt due to sustained winds and rough seas in the recovery area,” SpaceX announced. “Now targeting Sunday, January 19, with a six-hour test window opening at 8:00 a.m. EST.”
Standing down from today’s in-flight Crew Dragon launch escape test attempt due to sustained winds and rough seas in the recovery area. Now targeting Sunday, January 19, with a six-hour test window opening at 8:00 a.m. EST, 13:00 UTC
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 18, 2020
The importance of a reliable abort system was dramatically demonstrated last October when a Russian booster suffered a catastrophic malfunction two minutes after liftoff. The Soyuz spacecraft carrying a Russian cosmonaut and his NASA co-pilot automatically aborted, landing about 200 miles downrange from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
“We were ripped away from the rocket while it’s disintegrating and continuing to burn and pulled away to safety,” astronaut Nick Hague told CBS News. “You realize in that moment, ‘hey, this could have been really bad.'”
How the test flight will work
The initial moments of Sunday’s flight will follow a normal Falcon 9 space station launch trajectory. But not for long.
As the rocket plows upward through the thick lower atmosphere, the region where aerodynamic stress is most severe, the on-board flight computer was programmed to trigger the abort about 84 seconds after liftoff, just as it would in a piloted flight if sensors detected an impending malfunction.
The Falcon’s engines will shut down as the Crew Dragon’s eight Super Draco abort engines ignite, pushing the capsule away from the now-powerless booster with an acceleration a race car driver would envy. Within just a few seconds, the spacecraft will reach a relative velocity of some 430 mph, subjecting two heavily instrumented astronaut test dummies to more than four times the normal force of gravity.
With its own engines shut down, the booster is expected to aerodynamically break up, showering debris into the Atlantic Ocean below. SpaceX recovery crews will be standing by just outside the designated safety zone to clean up as much of the debris as possible.
“The Dragon will have left, so the top end of the second stage is now basically a big air scoop,” said Benji Reed, SpaceX director of crew mission management. “And so you’ve got all this air pushing against it, a huge amount of force pushing against it … so it’s going to be a lot more susceptible to the winds as it loses its velocity and start to tumble.
“At some point, we expect that the Falcon will start to break up. And yes, both stages are loaded with fuel because we want to have the right mass and do the test the right way. So with both stages loaded with fuel, there’ll probably be some amount of ignition, flame, we’ll see something. … But we do expect it to break up.”
The Crew Dragon, meanwhile, was programmed to jettison its no-longer-needed lower trunk section before flipping around, putting its heat shield in the direction of travel, arcing over at an altitude of about 26 miles and plunging back into the lower atmosphere.
If all goes well, two drogue chutes will deploy at an altitude of about three miles, stabilizing the ship and slowing it down before the Crew Dragon’s four main parachutes deploy about a minute later at an altitude of just one mile or so. From there, the ship should descend to a relatively gentle splashdown about 20 miles east of Cape Canaveral.
A SpaceX recovery ship will be standing by to haul the craft on board and bring it back to Port Canaveral. Total test duration from launch to splashdown: about 10 minutes.
The abort systems in the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner are both designed to carry the capsules to safety in the event of a catastrophic failure at any point from the launch pad to orbit, resulting in emergency splashdowns. Launches to the space station require trajectories that parallel the East Coast and an abort could result in a splashdown at any point from Cape Canaveral to the North Atlantic Ocean.
For normal SpaceX splashdowns and Boeing landings in the western United States, both companies are responsible for recovering their own spacecraft and getting the crews back to NASA. For emergency rescue scenarios, all of which end with unplanned ocean splashdowns, NASA is relying on the U.S. Air Force.
For all piloted launches of Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft, two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters and an extended-range HC-130 aircraft will be on standby at nearby Patrick Air Force Base, ready to deploy rescue crews, rafts and equipment within 230 miles of the launch site.
For near-shore aborts, the astronauts would be flown back to land by helicopter or taken directly to a trauma center if necessary.
“Other crews will be on standby in Charleston, South Carolina, where a C-17 (jet) will be ready for takeoff,” Steve Payne, manager of commercial crew launch integration for NASA, said in an interview. “They can go fly out to wherever we are in the middle of the ocean, drop equipment and rescue jumpers and get the crew stabilized and then wait for a … vessel of opportunity to come help out.”
Once a commercial crew ship reaches orbit, the Air Force will maintain the rescue alert team at Charleston and another a Hickham Air Force Base in Hawaii to provide assistance in the event of problems that might force an unplanned landing.