SpaceX performed a dramatic high-altitude test flight Sunday of the company’s Crew Dragon capsule over Florida’s Space Coast, testing the human-rated ship’s ability to escape a rocket failure and save its crew before two NASA astronauts strap in for a flight to the International Space Station as soon as this spring.
SpaceX will sacrifice a Falcon 9 rocket Sunday in a fiery test a minute-and-a-half after liftoff from Florida’s Space Coast to prove the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft can safely push astronauts away from a failing launch vehicle, simulating a daring maneuver that would only be attempted on a piloted mission during an in-flight emergency.
A NASA official said Friday that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft could be ready to ferry astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station as soon as early March, pending the results from a major demonstration of the ship’s launch abort system this weekend, a pair of parachute drop tests, and space station crew schedules.
SpaceX launched an unpiloted Crew Dragon spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT) Sunday. SpaceX triggered an escape maneuver using the Dragon’s thrusters about a minute-and-a-half after liftoff to verify the launch abort engines can safely carry the capsule — and astronauts on future missions — away from a failing rocket.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule were raised vertical at launch pad 39A in Florida late Thursday, setting the stage for a launch day dress rehearsal Friday with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — the veteran space fliers assigned to the Crew Dragon’s first piloted mission later this year — before a critical in-flight test of the ship’s emergency escape system Saturday.
While NASA and Boeing engineers investigate the cause of a software error that cut short the first orbital test flight of the Starliner crew capsule last month, ground teams have returned the spaceship from its landing site in New Mexico back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Preliminary inspections indicate the reusable spacecraft weathered its first trip into orbit better than expected, and Boeing teams are confident the ship will need only “minimal refurbishment” before its next launch with astronauts.
SpaceX’s final planned Crew Dragon test flight before astronauts ride the commercial spaceship into orbit is scheduled for Saturday, when an unpiloted crew capsule will fire off the top of a Falcon 9 rocket shortly after launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to test the craft’s in-flight emergency escape capability.