Spaceflight Insider

NASA approves SpaceX pad abort test, releases payment

SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 Pad Abort Test Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 SLC-40 photo credit Carleton Bailie SpaceFlight Insider_falcon_9_pad_abort_test-carleton_bailie

NASA has dubbed SpaceX's May 6 Pad Abort Test to be a success. This marks a major step toward SpaceX using the Dragon spacecraft to send crews to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

California-based Space Exploration Technologies, more commonly known as “SpaceX”, continues to complete its commercial crew milestones. NASA officially declared that the data gathered during SpaceX recent pad test proved the viability of the spacecraft. The test was conducted on May 6 EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Florida. 

The Crew Dragon’s eight SuperDraco engines fired at 9 a.m. EDT for a period of about six seconds, each instantly producing about 15,000 pounds-force of thrust and lifting the spacecraft off a specially-built platform at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Florida. The spacecraft traveled 3,561 feet (1,187 meters) up before jettisoning its trunk and safely splashing down under three main parachutes in the Atlantic Ocean, 3,606 feet (1,202 meters) from the launch site.

Although the brief test might not have appeared to have been much, it was a critical step for the NewSpace firm.

A test article of SpaceX's crewed Dragon spacecraft drifts down to the Atlantic Ocean below in this May 6 image. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

A test article of SpaceX’s crewed Dragon spacecraft drifts down to the Atlantic Ocean below in this May 6 image. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

“This test was highly visible and provided volumes of important information, which serves as tangible proof that our team is making significant progress toward launching crews on American rockets from America soon,” said Jon Cowart, partner manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “The reams of data collected provide designers with a real benchmark of how accurate their analyses and models are at predicting reality. As great as our modern computational methods are, they still can’t beat a flight test, like this, for finding out what is going on with the hardware.”

The test helped to demonstrated to NASA that the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is capable of saving astronauts in the event of a dangerous or life-threatening situation at the launch pad.

Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX responded, “This is the first major flight test for a vehicle that will bring astronauts to space for the entire Commercial Crew Program. The successful test validated key predictions as it relates to the transport of astronauts to the space station. With NASA’s support, SpaceX continues to make excellent and rapid progress in making the Crew Dragon spacecraft the safest and most reliable vehicle ever flown.”

With the successful test of the pad abort system, NASA released some $30 million in funds to SpaceX, thereby completing this milestone of the Commercial Crew Program. Next up for SpaceX is a mid-flight abort test scheduled for late August or early September.

An unmanned mission to the International Space Station (ISS) should follow in late 2016. That vehicle will dock with the ISS for 30 days before returning to Earth via parachute assisted splashdown. If everything continues to go according to plan, this will be followed by the first crewed Dragon spacecraft docking with the space station in mid 2017.

SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 Pad Abort Test Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 SLC-40 photo credit Mike Howard SpaceFlight Insider

The pad abort test was just one among several milestones that SpaceX has on schedule over the course of the next two years. The culmination of which could see crews fly to the ISS via the private aerospace company’s Dragon spacecraft. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

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Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own
rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space
endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

Reader Comments

I believe one of the thrusters did not operate properly, so I wouldn’t call this test 100% successful.

Any test you get all the data you were expecting to collect is successful. The point of the test was not to verify actual mission performance of the propulsion system as it was the first time the fully integrated 8 thrusters were fired together.

I find it highly plausible that in aerospace, just like in computer programming, a maxim exists saying that a test that doesn’t fail at least partly doesn’t teach you anything new.

That is why there are 8 thrusters.

Clive Bashford

But if all the thrusters had operated properly, then the ability of the Dragon to compensate for an underperforming thruster would not have been demonstrated.

I believe they noted a slight variance in one thruster which did not affect the test negatively and as noted was still successful. I feel sure that NASA looked at all the data including that before declaring it a success in any case since they have a lot more data about it than we do.

You can sometimes learn more from a failure than a success, Example: the one Merlin 1C engine failure and successful compensation on CRS-1.

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