CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – White smoke dissipating above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was the only indication Wednesday afternoon that SpaceX was testing its astronaut capsule Crew Dragon ahead of a critical launch abort test.
Elon Musk’s company later confirmed the white smoke was from a successful test of the spacecraft’s emergency escape system.
From Kennedy Space Center, the plumes could be seen rising from SpaceX Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station just after 3 p.m.
SpaceX was testing the SuperDraco engines on the capsule it is developing as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. NASA also tapped Boeing to develop a spacecraft called CST-100 Starliner.
The SuperDraco thrusters are what will shuttle the astronauts inside the capsule away to safety in case there’s a launch failure.
“Full duration static fire test of Crew Dragon’s launch escape system complete,” the company said in a tweet. “SpaceX and NASA teams are now reviewing test data and working toward an in-flight demonstration of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities.”
The last such test at Cape Canaveral in April ended in an explosion, destroying the Crew Dragon. Hours after the incident sent red-tinted smoke clouds over Cape Canaveral SpaceX said an anomaly had occurred but did not confirm the capsule was destroyed until 12 days later.
The delay caused NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to call for more “transparency for the taxpayer."
After a monthslong joint investigation with NASA, SpaceX determined a leaking valve is what caused the Crew Dragon capsule to explode during the ground test. The company has since made changes to the spacecraft hardware to eliminate the possibility of another incident, according to NASA.
Depending on the results of Wednesday’s test, SpaceX will move ahead with a launch abort test, during which they will launch a Crew Dragon on a Falcon 9 rocket and trigger a launch failure to test the emergency abort system.
“Today’s tests will help validate the launch escape system ahead of Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort demonstration planned as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program," NASA said in a news release. “SpaceX and NASA will now review the data from today’s test, perform detailed hardware inspections, and establish a target launch date for the In-Flight Abort Test.”
NASA has confirmed to News 6 that test will be broadcast live.
All this is leading toward NASA certification of Crew Dragon to carry astronauts. When the time comes, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will be the first to launch on Crew Dragon to the International Space Station.