SpaceX has been successfully flying its Dragon capsule up to the International Space Station for a while now, but these have all been unmanned missions. The ultimate goal is to transport people aboard the Dragon, but that means you need to take additional precautions. For example, the launch abort system, which was just tested by the company. As with everything it does, SpaceX filmed it and put it on YouTube.
The idea is that if something goes wrong on the launch pad or in the leg of flight, the abort system will be able to blast the crew capsule free of the rest of the rocket. The dragon then deploys its parachutes and lands safely away from any potential explosions or fiery wreckage. Think of it like an ejection seat for the entire crewed portion of the craft.
In order to get the crew safely clear of a catastrophically filing rocket, the abort system needs to be scary-fast. It’s powered by eight SuperDraco engines, which are also used for powered landings. Each engine puts out 15, 000 pounds of thrust, and they’re mounted to the bottom of the Dragon capsule. Past launch abort systems had the thrusters carried the engines at the top of the craft, but this configuration means the abort system can be used at any time in the flight from the launchpad to orbit.
In this first real world test of the abort system, the SuperDraco engines pushed the crew capsule from 0-100 mph in just 1.2 seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 345 mph. See? Scary-fast. The test capsule carried sensors and equipment to monitor conditions to ensure any real humans on board would have survived the ejection unharmed. The abort system will later be tested in flight at a higher altitude before any astronauts are entrusted to it. SpaceX hopes to bring crewed launch missions back to the US by 2017.
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