SpaceX has released video of one of its latest Crew Dragon test, with the spacecraft’s launch escape system put through its paces should an emergency abort be required. Undertaken back in mid-January, the testing focused on one of the most important safety systems the spacecraft will feature, designed to whisk astronauts out of harm’s way in case of something like a Falcon 9 explosion.
No crew was actually onboard the Crew Dragon during the trial. Instead, the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon craft took off in the morning from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida under remote control.
After approximately ninety seconds, though, the abort sequence was initiated. At that point, Crew Dragon automatically triggered its eight SuperDraco engines, which broke the spacecraft away from the Falcon 9. It’s not a quiet process, nor a relaxing one, with Crew Dragon propelled at over 400 mph to maximize the distance placed between it and the rocket.
After that separation has been established, Dragon deployed its parachutes and descended on the upgraded Mark III ‘chutes to the Atlantic Ocean. There, SpaceX recovered it for reuse. CEO Elon Musk has suggested that future splash-downs could have Crew Dragon capsules land directly on its autonomous barges, rather than a water recovery.
It was a big step forward for SpaceX, and for NASA. Crew Dragon is on course for its first manned flight to the International Space Station later this year, kicking off new missions using the spacecraft to shuttle astronauts as well as cargo to the orbiting research platform. NASA has scheduled that first trip for May 27, with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley selected to be aboard. The journey will take approximately 24 hours, including time en-route to undertake tests of the spacecraft’s systems among other things. The docking process – and, at the other end of the mission, the undocking process – is automatic, with Crew Dragon mating with the ISS’ airlocks.
Beyond that, though, Crew Dragon’s technology will form the basis, at least in part, of the SpaceX Starship project. One of the final three candidates for NASA’s Artemis mission human landing system, and the 2024 return to the Moon, Starship will use Raptor engines and capsule technology iterated from Crew Dragon. SpaceX plans several different versions of the Starship, in fact, configured for different tasks: taking astronauts into space, acting as a refueling station in low-Earth orbit, and more.