SpaceX pad abort test will work to return crewed flights to Cape Canaveral
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — SpaceX Exploration Technologies (SpaceX ) is just a few days away from carrying out a pad abort test of the NewSpace firm’s Dragon V2 spacecraft. With this major milestone set to take place, an aspect that was common place throughout the sixties is set for a comeback – crewed missions launching from Cape Canaveral as opposed to Kennedy Space Center.
During a press conference that was held on Friday, May 1, Jon Cowart, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program partner manager, along with SpaceX’s vice president of Mission Assurance, Hans Koenigsmann, detailed the upcoming mission along with the aspects of the test profile covered at length.
“Don’t wait for the sound, because the test is going to be over by the time you hear the sound,” Koenigsmann said. “Bear with us, this is a test after all. That’s why the launch window is so long.”
Koenigsmann noted that Dragon will utilize the eight SuperDraco engines mounted onto the sides of Dragon (as opposed to the more traditional top mounted launch abort system that most other boosters have used) for this test flight. The test craft will be pushed to an altitude of about 5,000 feet (1,524 m), some six thousand feet (1.83 km) out across the Atlantic Ocean before three parachutes provide a soft splashdown.
Cowart underscored the need for patience in terms of this test and made sure to mention that the SuperDraco engines are 3D printed and that the pad abort test will mark the first time that all eight have been fired at a single time.
“We are going to take the time that we need to get it right,” Cowart added. “This is a development test, we re developing a system, looking very hard at how the SuperDracos will operate during this test.”
According to Koenigsmann, the Dragon V2 will fire its eight SuperDraco motors for approximately six seconds. The test article will then coast for an additional 20 seconds where it should reach a maximum altitude of about 5,000 feet (1,524 meters). Koenigsmann told SpaceFlight Insider that the vehicle’s trajectory should take it about 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) out across the Atlantic.
The “Trunk” portion of the spacecraft will then fall away from the craft. A few seconds after that and the drogue parachutes should deploy, followed by the primary parachutes. After what is hoped to be a soft splashdown, recovery vessels will collect Dragon – and her “pilot”.
“Buster” a test dummy will ride the Dragon V2 aloft and serve to provide data as to what an actual astronaut would encounter.
Video courtesy of NASA via SpaceFlight Insider
A pit has been constructed at SLC-40 with SpaceX’s Transporter-Erector placed over the hole. Essentially, a steel frame has been placed over the pit with a simulated Falcon 9 v1.1 upper stage placed on top of the frame, with the Dragon V.2’s trunk on top of that, capped by the Dragon itself. This will allow SpaceX to somewhat replicate some of the conditions of an actual abort. Some sound suppression water will flow under Dragon to prevent damage to the craft.
The abort system that Dragon will use is different than traditional models (those used on Mercury and Apollo) as well we what is used on Roscosmos’ Soyuz spacecraft.
“There are different ways to do business… so, that SpaceX came up with this way, we think is fantastic. We see that, inherently, there is nothing wrong with putting the rockets on the side,” Cowart said. “As Hans has pointed out, you get some benefits from doing that. Eventually, someday, they hope to be able to do a propulsive landing. If they don’t have to do an abort, they can use those same rockets for a landing. Whereas if you had a conventional launch escape system on top, once you get up above a certain point, it’s jettisoned.”
If everything goes according to plan, this test will prepare the Dragon for other milestones which will culminate in crews riding the spacecraft to the International Space Station.
Both SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 capsules have been tapped to ferry astronauts to the ISS. These missions should launch from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40 and 41 respectively. The last time a crew launched from Cape Canaveral was the flight of Apollo 7, which lifted off from Launch Complex-34 on Oct. 11, 1968.
When asked about why the next planned test for the Dragon V2, the launch abort test, is set to take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in July of this year, Koenigsmann noted that it was due to the increased workload that SpaceX has encountered at the Cape.
“It’s because we are so busy launching here from the Cape… we have had, like what, five launches in four months?” Koenigsmann said with a tired smile.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.