Crew Dragon In-Flight Abort’s successful completion clears way for crewed flights
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — SpaceX and NASA conducted an experimental flight of the Crew Dragon ahead of anticipated crewed missions to the sole destination located in low-Earth orbit.
This In-Flight Abort Test (or “IFA”) was carried today, Sunday January 19 at 10:30 a.m. EST (15:30 UTC) launching from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. Today’s test showed yet again that the $2.6 billion which SpaceX was awarded under the agency’s Commercial Crew Program – wasn’t wasted.
The objective of the IFA was to prove the Crew Dragon has a capable emergency escape system. With the IFA over and done, NASA should give SpaceX the green light for the craft to begin ferrying astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station.
“So far, what we’ve seen is what we expected,” NASA astronaut Victor Glover said during a press conference held after the test.
In terms of this morning’s launch and the attempt SpaceX made yesterday, only weather caused an issue. High winds and rough seas in the recovery zone caused enough concern that the test was pushed from yesterday to today. As of this writing, no technical issues were detected and Crew Dragon has checked off yes another “to do” box on the list of items that need to be accomplished before the company is able to launch crews to the space station.
The Falcon 9 rocket used on this morning’s flight itself is crew-rated. For the IFA, it carried the Crew Dragon spacecraft and flew for approximately 90 seconds before SpaceX initiated the test. The Dragon capsule is fitted with 4 thruster pods, with each pod containing two SuperDraco engines. The purpose of these engines is to pull the Crew Dragon capsule to safety in the unlikely event of a catastrophic failure of the Falcon 9 rocket. This system proved to be successful in both ground and flight testing—as witnessed by this morning’s actual Falcon 9 launch.
“This was a test, but it looked beautiful and now the real work begins,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. He went on to note that with the successful completion of the IFA the orbiting lab was a destination of which astronauts could soon travel. “We have to make some decisions on our end, from a NASA perspective: do we want that first crew to be a short duration [mission] or do we want it to be a longer duration? If it’s going to be a longer duration, then we have to have some additional training for our astronauts to actually be prepared to do things on the International Space Station that we weren’t planning to have that initial test crew necessarily do.”
And those options are needed – fast. At present NASA is plunking down more than $70 million a pop for each seat when one of the agency’s astronauts fly aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. When asked about plans for NASA to cease flying crew aboard Soyuz, Bridenstine balanced his confidence in the Commercial Crew Program’s progress with wanting to ensure that crews could fly as needed: “At this point, as much confidence as we have in the team, I think it’s probably not prudent to go that direction.”, confirming that “we’re going to buy another Soyuz seat.”
The Falcon 9 rocket did not make its way to space but was destroyed in flight after the Crew Dragon jettisoned away from the booster. When the Dragon jettisoned to safety, the rocket was no longer aerodynamic and broke apart in “Dragon Fire” according to Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX. Had the rocket not broken apart, the booster and remaining fuel would have exploded on direct impact with the ocean.
SpaceX is recovering all debris from the staged anomaly along with the Crew Dragon capsule. With the success of this test, this particular Dragon capsule is now expected to transport cargo to the Space Station instead of transporting astronauts.
The sacrificed booster had modifications prior to launch: the legs and grid fins were removed–along with the second stage engine. Other than these modifications, it proceeded as a normal Dragon launch to the orbiting lab until the rocket reached “Max Q”. Max Q is the term used within the industry to describe the point where the largest forces of air are being pushed against the rocket. This was a crucial function for this ultimate test of the Crew Dragon’s launch abort system.
To simulate a failure of the Falcon 9 rocket, all engines were manually shut down. The Crew Dragon immediately detected this and automatically triggered an in-flight abort by firing the SuperDraco engines. In turn, the engines began to separate the Crew Dragon from the simulated failure and danger of the
Falcon 9 rocket.
Once the SuperDraco thrusters stopped firing, it oriented itself for descent and made an apparently nominal parachute landing in the ocean. In a real-world emergency, if the booster were to break apart or there was an explosion, an electrical connection that runs the length of the rocket would sever. Once the Dragon detected this connection was broken, it would trigger the in-flight abort system. For SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, today’s test was further validation of the company’s design.
“Because of the integrated design, we are able have launch abort capability all the way to orbit.” Musk said.