SpaceX completed the first flight test of its next generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts into space.
SpaceX performed a pad abort test of the company’s first human-rated spacecraft designed to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX’s Dragon V2 spacecraft lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, May 6, 2015.
The pad abort test was the first flight test of SpaceX’s next generation spacecraft and was intended to evaluate the spacecraft’s launch escape system, which is supposed to carry astronauts to safety in the event of a rocket failure. The pad abort test was designed to simulate an actual launch abort emergency, testing the spacecraft’s ability to put a safe distance between it and the launch vehicle.
Launch escape systems are safety systems designed to separate the crew and spacecraft from the rocket in the event of an emergency during launch. Launch escape systems work much like ejection seats for fighter pilots, with the exception that the entire spacecraft is ejected.
Traditional launch escape systems were jettisoned shortly after launch. The Dragon V2’s launch escape system is integrated directly into the spacecraft, making it the first spacecraft designed to offer launch escape services from launch all the way to orbit should something go wrong with the rocket.
For the pad abort test, the Dragon V2 was launched atop a trunk, instead of a rocket, using its eight SuperDraco engines to liftoff. Following engine cutoff the spacecraft coasted to its maximum altitude and then separated from its trunk and deployed its parachute system before splashing down safely in the ocean.
“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” SpaceX Vice President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann said in a statement prior to Wednesday’s test. “The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”
“SpaceX was founded with the goal of carrying people to space, and today’s pad abort test represented an important milestone in that effort,” SpaceX President and CEO Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement. “Our partnership with NASA has been essential for developing Crew Dragon, a spacecraft that we believe will be the safest ever flown. Today’s successful test will provide critical data as we continue toward crewed flights in 2017.”
The U.S. has relied on Russia to transport astronauts to the International Space Station since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. The U.S. currently pays Russia just over $70 million per seat to ferry NASA astronauts to the orbiting space station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
SpaceX and Boeing were granted contracts late last year by NASA to develop commercial spacecrafts capable of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Launch abort services are a critical component of the contract. Following the pad abort test, SpaceX will perform an in-flight abort test leading to an eventual human flight test in 2017.
No astronauts were aboard the spacecraft during the pad abort test on Wednesday. Instead, the spacecraft was carrying a dummy and was retrofitted with sensors to collect data which will provide insights into how the spacecraft performed.