As test flights go, it was quick and apparently easy, over in a few short minutes. The unmanned rocket capsule shot into the air from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Wednesday morning, then popped off like a cork from a champagne bottle before splashing down in the Atlantic ocean.
But as Elon Musk's SpaceX moves toward flying astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017, SpaceX's so-called "launch abort test" was a critical one, allowing the company to demonstrate that should something go wrong during a rocket launch, it has a way to get the crew to safety.
It was rocket science's version of a fighter pilot ejection seat. But as SpaceX pointed out in a blog post, "instead of ejecting the pilot out of the spacecraft, the entire spacecraft is 'ejected' away from the launch vehicle." While most escape systems are good only for a few minutes after launch, SpaceX says its system allows the crew to abort "from the launch pad all the way to orbit."
In a press conference, Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur who also runs Tesla Motors, told reporters that the successful test "bodes quite well for the future of the program."
"Had there been people on board, they would have been in great shape, " he said.
The capsule zoomed into the sky, going from 0 to 100 m.p.h. in 1.2 seconds. "That's pretty zippy, " Musk said.
The company will now look at the data collected from the test, including from a nameless dummy on board, which according to SpaceX, "prefers to remain anonymous for the time being."
Along with Boeing, SpaceX is working under a NASA contract to fly astronauts to the space station, restoring the United States' ability to fly people from U.S. soil for the first time since the shuttle program was mothballed in 2011. SpaceX currently has a contract to ferry supplies to the station, and is planning another trip next month.
Musk said that there should be manned flights by 2017, but did not want to pinpoint a precise date. "When you're in unexplored territory, it's hard to say when you'll arrive at the destination, " he said."
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