SpaceX nears pad abort test for human-rated Dragon capsule

March 31, 2015 – 09:26 am

SpaceX has released this photo of the Dragon spacecraft for the pad abort test. Credit: SpaceXSpaceX is finishing up preparations for a major test of a rocket-powered abort system for the company’s new Dragon crew ferry spacecraft, targeting launch from Cape Canaveral in March after a pair of Falcon 9 missions in February.

The redesigned version of SpaceX’s cargo-carrying Dragon capsule should be ready for an uncrewed space mission by late 2016, said Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer. A piloted test flight will follow in early 2017, she said.

Engineers have already built a prototype version of the human-rated capsule for the abort test from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad. The craft will not carry a space-rated life support system or cockpit displays, but SpaceX officials have said an instrumented mannequin will be strapped into a seat inside the capsule’s crew cabin.

The pad abort test was delayed from last year, but Shotwell told reporters Jan. 26 that SpaceX has “largely completed” construction of the pad abort system.

“It took us quite a while to get there, but there’s a lot of great technology and innovations in that pad abort vehicle, ” Shotwell said.

The pad abort setup includes a capsule with hundreds of sensors to measure pressures, loads, temperatures and other data during the flight test, which is expected to last about one minute. The craft will blast off from a specially-built truss to mimic the capsule sitting atop a Falcon 9 booster.

The test will be the most visible sign of progress on NASA’s commercial crew program at Cape Canaveral since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011. The space agency is turning over crew taxi flights to the International Space Station to industry, allowing NASA to spend more money on human missions to deep space.

Artist's concept of a Crew Dragon spacecraft on final approach to the International Space Station. A SpaceX cargo craft is also seen in this animation. Credit: SpaceXThe pad abort is scheduled after two upcoming Falcon 9 launches from Complex 40. The Deep Space Climate Observatory for NOAA is set to blast off Feb. 8, followed by the launch of a pair of communications satellites for Eutelsat and Asia Broadcast Satellite before the end of the month.

Eight SuperDraco rocket engines will fire to push the spacecraft away from the truss platform and demonstrate the Dragon’s ability to escape from a catastrophic mishap on the launch pad.

SpaceX shared the brief video clip below showing a SuperDraco “jetpack” with two thrusters firing on a stand at the company’s test facility in McGregor, Texas.

The test capsule’s SuperDraco engines will propel the craft several thousand feet into the air before three main parachutes unfurl and the Dragon gently splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean just offshore Cape Canaveral.

Each SuperDraco thruster generates about 16, 000 pounds of thrust to carry crews away from danger during launch. SpaceX says the engines can also slow down the capsule during landing, eventually allowing the craft to accomplish propulsive pinpoint touchdowns like a helicopter.

“The integrated launch abort system is critically important to us, ” Shotwell said. “We think it gives incredible safety features for a full abort all the way through ascent. It does also allow us the ultimate goal of fully propulsive landing.”

The Crew Dragon’s initial flights will end with splashdowns in the ocean like the capsule’s cargo version.

SpaceX won a NASA contract worth up to $2.6 billion in September to finish development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Boeing netted a similar deal for its CST-100 space capsule with a maximum value of $4.2 billion.

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