SpaceX conducts successful test of Space Dragon capsule abort system
Eighty-four seconds after launch, the SpaceX rocket exploded precisely as it was planned to do, the capsule separating and splashing down in the Atlantic.
Had there been crew members aboard, they would likely have survived to fly another day.
This was the long awaited abort test of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, designed to lift it away from a damaged rocket and safely return the crew to Earth.
That was conducted at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida over the weekend and all indications are at this stage that it proceeded exactly as intended.
The test was an essential forerunner to the inaugural crewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS), some time in the second quarter.
A full examination of all the data from the abort test is expected to take weeks but SpacesX chief executive Elon Musk was upbeat.
“Overall, as far as we can tell thus far, it is a picture-perfect mission. It went as well as one could possibly expect,” he told a a post-launch media briefing.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine at the same briefing said, “Another amazing milestone is complete for our very-soon-to-be project, which is launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”
The Falcon 9 carrying the Crew Dragon lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at 10.30am US Eastern Standard Time, a day later than planned after bad weather forced a postponement.
At the 84-second mark, the Crew Dragon ignited its eight SuperDraco thrusters, carrying the spacecraft away from the rocket.
Soon after, the spacecraft separated from its trunk section and then descended by parachute into the Atlantic for recovery nine minutes later and 32 kilometres offshore.
Several seconds after the Crew Dragon separation, the Falcon 9 rocket broke up and exploded, producing a spectacular fireball.
However, before Crew Dragon can fly people, some more tests of the parachutes are planned.
Crew Dragon uses four parachutes and in a test with one parachute deliberately disabled last April, the other three did not work satisfactorily and the test vehicle landed harder than intended.
That was unexpected as in a number of earlier tests with a single parachute out, the test vehicle still landed satisfactorily.
Musk said that the Crew Dragon that will fly the crewed test, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard, should be ready by the end of February.
However, there will be other reviews. The launch will also have to meet the ISS schedule and Musk said the collective wisdom indicated the first crewed launch will be in second quarter.
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