The four main parachutes of SpaceX”s Crew Dragon slow the capsule down after its in-flight abort test.
SpaceX completed its last major test before flying astronauts to space on Sunday, in a critical high-speed mission that lasted mere minutes.
Launched on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the company conducted a test of its Crew Dragon capsule called in-flight abort.
“Overall, as far as I can tell thus far, this was a picture perfect mission,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a press conference after the test. “I’m super fired up; this is great.”
It’s a crucial milestone for Musk’s space company, as it will be key in determining whether NASA certifies the company’s capsule to begin flying the agency’s astronauts.
“Another amazing milestone is complete,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “Congratulations to SpaceX and the entire NASA team on this final major flight milestone that we needed to accomplish.”
The in-flight abort test is designed to mimic a real launch but with an important difference: SpaceX triggered Crew Dragon’s emergency escape system during the most intense part of the launch.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule fires its engines and separates from a Falcon 9 rocket during a test of its emergency escape system.
In just under 90 seconds into the launch, the rocket reached a critical velocity known as “Max Q.” This is the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure, when the Earth’s dense atmosphere is exerting enormous force on the rocket as it accelerates into the sky.
SpaceX then triggered the abort, with the capsule’s engines accelerating it away from the rocket. Musk said Crew Dragon reached a top velocity of Mach 2.2, more than two times the speed of sound, and the capsule peaked at 131,000 feet altitude.
While the capsule continued on, the company’s rocket exploded, breaking into pieces as it ripped across the sky.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 explodes during a test of the company’s Crew Dragon capsule.
Crew Dragon splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean at 10:39 a.m. ET under its four parachutes.
The in-flight abort mission also represented another important test of SpaceX’s parachute system. It was the second “system level test” of the company’s Mark 3 parachutes, just a month after SpaceX’s first test. NASA’s commercial crew manager Kathy Lueders said that two more system level tests are needed before SpaceX flies crew.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule splashes down after its first test flight in March 2019.
SpaceX has developed Crew Dragon in large part thanks to NASA’s commercial crew program, as the company has been awarded more than $3.1 billion since winning its first contract for the capsule in 2014. Development of Crew Dragon has suffered several setbacks over the years, including getting its parachute system working and a capsule explosion during a test last April.
“This test is very important to us. It’s really the culmination of years of work together in close partnership with NASA,” SpaceX director of crew mission management Benji Reed said on Friday.
If this test and Crew Dragon’s final certification process are successful, NASA expects SpaceX to fly two of its astronauts on a test flight to the space station between April and June of this year. It will be the first time the U.S. launched its own astronauts to the International Space Station since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.
“This is our last milestone” for Crew Dragon under NASA’s development contract, Lueders said in the press conference Friday.
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken suited up inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
After the launch, NASA and SpaceX will host a press conference to talk about the preliminary results of the test. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, along with two agency astronauts, are scheduled to speak.