Analysis: SpaceX passes a major fail test for its Dragon crewed capsule

April 12, 2017 – 10:08 pm

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The Dragon capsule is a crewed module meant to carry astronauts to space — but for that to happen, its creators at SpaceX will have to make sure it’s ready for every possible eventuality. That long process began last week, as the company’s Dragon module simulated a major failure in its engines and performed an emergency bail-out procedure over NASA’s Cape Canaveral facility. The verdict? A success overall, but NASA will require a lot more work done before it risks one of its highly trained astronauts on a third-party vehicle.

The test lasted just under two minutes in total, assessing the capsule’s ability to get itself into a safe position for bail-out, and to there land softly enough to protect any human occupants.About a second off the ground the capsule veered off course so it could descend into the water. The capsule’s eight SuperDraco engines fired for just five seconds, producing for that period something like 120, 000 pounds of thrust (or about 3% of the thrust of SpaceX’s enormous Falcon Heavy rocket). Aiming itself over the nearby Cape, the capsule lifted to about 5, 000 feet. Here, it ditched the “trunk” section, and deployed parachutes, slowly descending nose-first toward the water.

The Dragon (technically called the Crew Dragon, though nobody will ever actually use that name) was carrying a test dummy rigged with damage sensors. After scooping the capsule out of the water, SpaceX found that the any humans on the capsule would have survived without injury. The passenger would have been subjected to a rough ride and some seriously heavy g-forces, but nothing beyond what astronauts are trained for.

dragon abort 3It’s important to note that this “pad abort test” was a display of a system that should never have to kick in. In the Apollo era, the pad abort engines were installed above the capsule itself, almost an afterthought in the overall design. SpaceX has integrated its SuperDraco emergency thrusters into the sides of the capsule itself. This means that engineers can never be tempted to design a lighter, more efficient system with fewer safety features.

It also means that the abort engines don’t need to be detached before leaving the atmosphere — which is crucial to SpaceX’s goal of a truly reusable manned spacecraft. Boeing‘s major competitor to the Dragon, the CST-100, will also use an integrated “pusher” engine system, rather than a front-mounted “tractor” system seen in years past. That system is scheduled for testing in early 2017.

An integrated pusher system also means that the SuperDraco escape engines are always available — after launch, in orbit, and during descent. That could greatly increase the options for engineers looking to plan for every heart-stopping eventuality in space, and save lives that would otherwise have been lost.


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  • avatar Was the Dragon cargo ship built by NASA?
    • SpaceX is a private-sector space exploration company that hopes to take the place of the US Space Shuttle program. On May 19th 2012 they are testing both their reusable Falcon 9 rocket and solar-powered remote-controlled Dragon cargo ship.