SpaceX launches, destroys rocket (intentionally) to test astronaut capsule emergency abort system

Crew Dragon splashes down in Atlantic during test designed to protect astronauts

Crew capsule returns after abort test
Crew capsule returns after abort test

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – SpaceX successfully launched a rocket Sunday morning from Kennedy Space Center and then intentionally blew it up over the Atlantic Ocean to test its Crew Dragon spacecraft’s emergency abort system.

“You get to see from a perspective of a human, how large it really is,” said Carol Higgins.

The in-flight abort test was the final step SpaceX must take to certify its spacecraft to fly NASA astronauts, possibly later this year.

“Another amazing milestone is complete for our very soon to be project which is launching American astronauts from American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

A Falcon 9 rocket soared from KSC Launch Pad 39A at 10:30 a.m. Sunday with the Crew Dragon spacecraft atop the rocket. About 2 minutes after liftoff the spacecraft triggered an abort and separated from the rocket proving its ability to keep astronauts safe in the event of a Falcon 9 rocket launch failure.

Aided by parachutes the Crew Dragon splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean about 10 minutes after launch where crews were standing by to retrieve the capsule.

The Crew Dragon capsule returned to Cape Canaveral Sunday evening on a boat and could be seen passing by the Jetty Park fishing pier.

“Oh my God, I’m speechless,” said spectator Beth Morgan. “This is something you can’t see every day, that’s the cool part about it.”

The launch time continued to shift throughout the morning later into the window due to weather. The first attempt Saturday was called off due to poor weather and rough seas.

A successful in-flight abort test depended on the weather cooperating.

“It is a picture-perfect mission. It went as well as we could possibly expect,” said SpaceX Founder Elon Musk.

While U.S. Air Force weather officials said favorable launch conditions were expected at the beginning of the window, forecasters were also considering wave height, among other factors, including the safety of the recovery team. For a successful test, SpaceX had crews standing by to collect the uncrewed astronaut capsule in the Atlantic Ocean after it splashed down.

Bridenstine declared the test successful and agreed with Musk that a crewed flight could happen in the second part of this year.

“This critical test puts us on the cusp of once again launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. Spacecraft recovery operations are underway,” he tweeted.

Read on to find out everything to know about this critical test.

Here’s what happened after liftoff

A plume of smoke off the Space Coast, likely from rocket debris after SpaceX intentionally destroyed its rocket to test its spacecraft emergency abort system. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG) (WKMG 2020)

After blasting off from KSC’s Launchpad 39A, the Falcon 9’s flight looked similar to a normal launch for about 1 minute.

About 80 seconds into the flight, SpaceX 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 began, the Falcon 9’s first stage engines shut down and Crew Dragon’s SuperDrago thrusters began firing.

Both the first and second stages of Falcon 9 were fully fueled which is why, seconds after that separation, the rocket broke up over the Atlantic Ocean. Read: The rocket blew up and was destroyed.

“We do expect there to be some sort of ignition,” Reed said of the rocket as it falls apart.

Debris from the rocket could be seen a few miles from the launch site and created a large plume of smoke in the Atlantic Ocean. News 6 radar picked up the explosion.

A SpaceX team was standing by to collect debris from the rocket. The office of the Brevard County Emergency Management also warned beach-goers and boaters to be aware of debris that may wash ashore.

Prior to any explosion, the Crew Dragon spacecraft was jettisoned 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 burned to completion and then the spacecraft coasted before separating from the “trunk” connected to the spacecraft.

Crew Dragon’s parachutes deployed on cue, allowing the spacecraft to make a soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX’s recovery teams were waiting. The spacecraft will splash down a little early about 10 minutes after launch.

SpaceX released this video showing what the test would look like:

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. They watched the in-flight abort test from the Kennedy Space Center Firing Room.

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.

Musk said Crew Dragon exceeded super-sonic speeds up to Mach 2 and was about 1 mile away from the rocket when it exploded.

“I’m super fired up,” Musk said at a news conference after the successful test. “It’s just going to be wonderful to get astronauts back into orbit from American soil after almost a decade of not being able to do so. That’s just super exciting.”

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley, assigned to fly on the first test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, pose inside a mockup of the spacecraft at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas on Aug. 2, 2018 ahead of the agency’s announcement of their commercial crew assignment Aug. 3. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 29A on Jan. 19, 2020. The launch was part of an in-flight abort test for the company's astronaut capsule, Crew Dragon. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG) (WKMG 2020)

More important details to know

Rocket: Falcon 9

What’s launching: Crew Dragon spacecraft

Launch window: 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Jan. 19.

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. 20

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