KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – A Falcon 9 rocket launch scheduled for Saturday from Kennedy Space Center won’t be your typical launch experience as SpaceX plans to purposely trigger an abort to test its astronaut spacecraft’s emergency abort system and in the process destroys its rocket over the Atlantic Ocean.
The in-flight abort test is the final step SpaceX must take to certify its spacecraft to fly NASA astronauts, possibly as soon as later this year.
NASA and SpaceX are targeting 8 a.m. Saturday to test the Crew Dragon’s ability to keep astronauts safe in the event of a Falcon 9 rocket launch failure. Teams are planning to target the launch in the last hour of the four-hour window.
The reason for this is due to sea conditions for the splashdown of the Crew Dragon spacecraft.
NASA said they will monitor the weather and update the launch time throughout the morning.
For this event, SpaceX will intentionally trigger an in-flight abort to test the spacecraft’s emergency abort system.
SpaceX has until noon Saturday for the launch window.
NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Lueders said people may be waiting a while for the launch because it’s not an instant launch or a normal mission.
“We’ll do the test when we’re ready," she said. “You may be waiting a while.”
U.S. Air Force weather officials said that while the launch conditions will be 90% Go, they are also forecasting for a successful ocean recovery of Crew Dragon.
“We’re trying to find a time that has launch weather lining up with recovery weather,” 45th Space Wing Weather Officer Mike McAleenan said.
Here’s what you can expect after liftoff
After blasting off from KSC’s Launchpad 39A, the Falcon 9’s flight will look similar to a normal launch for about 1 minute.
About 80 seconds into the flight, SpaceX has programmed Crew Dragon to intentionally trigger a launch escape.
SpaceX director of Crew Mission Management Benji Reed said SpaceX programmed the abort trigger to happen 84 seconds into flight “to hit the sweet spot to get the most effective data out of this test.”
Once the in-flight abort process begins, the Falcon 9’s first stage engines will shut down and Crew Dragon’s SuperDrago thrusters will begin firing.
Both the first and second stages of Falcon 9 will be fully fueled which means there will likely be some kind of explosion over the Atlantic Ocean when the rocket is destroyed.
“We do expect there to be some sort of ignition,” Reed said of the rocket as it falls apart.
A SpaceX team will be standing by to collect debris from the rocket.
Prior to any explosion and after Crew Dragon separates from the rocket, the spacecraft will jettison away from the Falcon 9.
“We expect it to be quite far away at the speed that it’s going before anything starts to happen (to the rocket),” Reed said.
Crew Dragon’s thrusters will burn to completion and then the spacecraft will coast before separating from the “trunk” connected to the spacecraft.
Crew Dragon will re-orient for re-entry and the parachute will deploy, allowing the spacecraft to make a soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX’s recovery teams will be waiting. The spacecraft will splash down about 10 minutes after launch.
SpaceX released this video showing what the test should look like:
Will you see the rocket explode?
The short answer: Most likely.
For context, in 2015 when a Falcon 9 exploded after launching a Cargo Dragon that happened about 130 seconds after liftoff and that was very visible from the Space Coast.
The Crew Dragon abort will happen 84 seconds after liftoff and then the Falcon 9 will likely begin to destabilize and break apart.
The long answer: This is the first time SpaceX has conducted this test. What you see depends on many factors including the weather and where you are watching.
Why this test is important
The in-flight abort test allows SpaceX and NASA teams to test the system designed to keep astronauts safe should something go wrong mid-launch. The recovery teams will be in place just like they would for an actual rescue operation.
“This is a big test for us,” Lueders said on Friday. “This is a test of the system that’s supposed to protect the crews.”
If all goes well, it’s the last milestone SpaceX has to complete before NASA certifies Crew Dragon to fly astronauts. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be the spacecraft’s first human passengers.
Behnken and Hurley conducted a “dry test” Friday suiting up and going through the motions like they would on launch day.
Inside the Crew Dragon used for the test are two dummies with sensors to collect data and show what astronauts will experience should they undergo an in-flight abort.
Astronauts could experience about 4Gs during an abort, Reed said.
Road closures and viewing options
Some popular launch viewing locations will be closed for the test, including Playalinda Beach and Canaveral National Seashore. Jetty Park in Cape Canaveral and Space View Park in Titusville will still be open for rocket watchers.
The following roads will be closed starting early Saturday:
State Road 3 from the Gate 2 News Media Pass and Identification Building to State Road 405 (NASA Causeway), including Space Commerce Way. The roads will close at 4 a.m. to the general public.
Access to KSC, KSC Visitor Complex, Exploration Park and Blue Origin will be limited to authorized personnel. All roads will reopen after the launch.
The A. Max Brewer Bridge on State Road 406, east to Playalinda Beach will close at 3:30 a.m. to all traffic.
State Road 3 North at U.S. 1 in Volusia County, south to Playalinda Beach will close at 3:30 a.m. to all traffic.
More important details to know
Rocket: Falcon 9
What’s launching: Crew Dragon spacecraft
Launch window: 8 a.m. to noon on Jan. 18.
Rocket landing? No. It will be destroyed after separation.
Spacecraft landing? Yes, splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean about 10 minutes after launch.
Backup launch dates: Jan. 19, Jan. 20