SpaceX crew capsule completes dramatic abort test

November 6, 2015 – 03:53 pm

The Crew Dragon capsule blasted off from Cape Canaveral's Complex 40 launch pad at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT). Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight NowUpdated at 12 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT) with details from Elon Musk

A rocket-powered prototype of SpaceX’s human-rated crew capsule vaulted off a launch pad at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday for a brief mile-high test flight of the spaceship’s emergency crew safety system.

Firing eight powerful SuperDraco rocket thrusters — together producing 120, 000 pounds of thrust — the 20-foot-tall spacecraft took off at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) Wednesday from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad.

No astronauts were aboard the capsule for Wednesday’s test, but SpaceX installed a human-sized crash test dummy fastened inside the ship’s crew cabin to mimic the ride passengers could encounter during an abort from the launch pad.

“It was a great outcome, ” said Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO. “Had there been people on-board, they would have been in great shape.”

The Dragon's crew module and trunk separate after liftoff on Wednesday's pad abort test .Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight NowFlying straight up, the gumdrop-shaped spaceship reached 100 mph in 1.2 seconds, blazing away launch complex as it pitched east toward the beach.

“That’s pretty zippy, ” Musk said.

The eight 3D-printed SuperDracos engines consumed their nearly two-ton load of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellant in less than six seconds, pushing the Dragon capsule a third of a mile above Cape Canaveral.

Top speed? 345 mph, according to Musk.

The spacecraft coasted higher until it released a disposable trunk segment at the apex of its trajectory. The flight was programmed to reach a peak altitude of nearly 5, 000 feet.

The capsule rotated to point its heat shied to the ground, then deployed a pair of stabilizing drogue parachutes and three orange and white main chutes to slow its descent.

The flight targeted a landing point about 1.4 miles from the launch pad, but a SpaceX engineer said on a control radio loop that the capsule’s top speed was “slightly below nominal.” The capsule splashed down a minute and 39 seconds after takeoff, about eight seconds earlier than planned.

SpaceX declared the flight a success.

Speaking to reporters a few hours after the abort demo, Musk said one of the capsule’s SuperDraco engines underperformed, blaming an abnormal fuel mixture ratio. He characterized the glitch as minor.

“All eight engines don’t need to work in order for the launch abort to be successful, ” Musk said. “It can actually work with as few as four of the engines working. It has engine-out capability in the launch abort as well.”

SpaceX recovery crews were stationed offshore to retrieve the spaceship and haul it aboard a barge for transport back to port.

SpaceX hoped to verify the Dragon capsule will follow the proper trajectory during the abort and complete its launch and landing sequence as planned.


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