CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. –
SpaceX completed the last major test of its capsule before launching astronauts in the coming months, mimicking an emergency escape shortly after takeoff on Sunday.
No one was on board for the wild ride in the skies above Cape Canaveral, just two dummies.
The nine-minute flight ended with the Dragon's crew capsule safely parachuting into the Atlantic, after separating and accelerating from the exploding rocket.
"I am very excited," Elon Musk, the company's founder and chief executive, told reporters. "It will be wonderful to take astronauts back into orbit on American soil after almost a decade of being unable to do that. This is super exciting."
NASA astronauts have not been launched from the U.S. since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. Musk and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the next Crew Dragon could be launched with a pair of NASA astronauts in the second quarter of this year – already in April.
The Falcon 9 rocket took off normally, but in just over a minute on its supersonic flight, the Dragon's crew capsule catapulted 20 miles above the Atlantic. The powerful impellers in the capsule propelled it out of harm's way, while the rocket engines shut down deliberately and the booster went wildly out of control and exploded into a giant fireball.
The capsule reached an altitude of about 27 miles (44 kilometers) before parachuting into the ocean, near the coast, to end the test flight. Everything seemed to be going well, despite the rough seas and the cloudy sky. Within minutes, a recovery vessel was beside the capsule.
Recycled from three previous launches, the SpaceX rocket was destroyed by exploding in flight and crashing into pieces at sea. SpaceX typically tries to retrieve its boosters to reduce launch costs by landing them vertically on a floating platform or back to the launch site.
NASA's commercial crew program manager, Kathy Lueders, said the launch cancellation test was "our last open milestone" before allowing SpaceX to launch Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken at the International Space Station. The release date will depend, in part, on whether NASA decides to keep them in the orbiting laboratory for months, versus just a week or two. A longer mission will require more training before the flight.
The astronauts monitored Sunday's flight from the shooting room. Hurley said it was "very cool to see" the capsule on board the recovery ship in two hours. According to all previous accounts, the test was successful.
"Let's see what the data shows and go from there," said Hurley. "But it is certainly a confidence builder from the point of view, if you have already gotten into that situation, that Dragon can move us away from reinforcement quickly."
Postponed for a day due to bad weather, the Sunday launch of Kennedy Space Center brought together hundreds of SpaceX, NASA and Air Force employees on land, at sea and in the air. Tourists and locals packed the adjoining visitor complex and nearby beaches to see the spectacular fire show of an out-of-control rocket.
NASA hired SpaceX and Boeing a decade ago to transport astronauts to and from the space station for billions of dollars. Both companies faced technical problems, adding years of delay and forcing NASA to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars more for Russian rocket rides.
After several deliveries of cargo to NASA, SpaceX successfully flew an enhanced crew capsule to the space station last March with no one on board, but exploded a month later during ground testing. The emergency exhaust thrusters – the type used in Sunday's test – had to be retrofitted. In all, SpaceX has tested these powerful Super Draco propellers about 700 times.
Meanwhile, last month, Boeing's Starliner crew capsule ended up in the wrong orbit on its first test flight and had to skip the space station. In the previous month, only two of Starliner's three parachutes were deployed during a launch cancellation test.
Lueders said it was too early to know whether Boeing would need to send another Starliner to the space station without a crew or go straight for the launch of astronauts later this year. An investigation team is still investigating why the Starliner's automatic timer was off for 11 hours during the December test flight.
The importance of the launch escape was demonstrated in 2017, when two astronauts, an American and a Russian, were safely rescued during a failed Kazakhstan launch. They experienced up to seven times the force of gravity during the abortion, but stayed away from the accident.
SpaceX's in-flight abortion system, Musk pointed out, must be kinder to the crew and is good from the launch pad to orbit.
Musk said the dragon's exhaust system should work – in principle – even if the capsule is still stuck when the rocket explodes into a fireball. He said it could look like "something out of & # 39; Star Wars" & # 39 ;, with the capsule flying directly from a fireball.
"Obviously, we want to avoid that," he added quickly, taking notes of all NASA personnel around him.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.