SpaceX In-Flight Abort Test Still on for Tomorrow, But Weather a Particular Challenge — UPDATE

SpaceX In-Flight Abort Test Still on for Tomorrow, But Weather a Particular Challenge — UPDATE

SpaceX and NASA are still planning to conduct the Crew Dragon In-Flight Abort (IFA) test tomorrow, but the weather is a particular challenge since it needs to be good not only for launch, but recovery.   NASA’s Kathy Lueders warned reporters today that they may have to wait some time for everything to be just right.  The four-hour window opens at 8:00 am ET, but SpaceX’s Benji Reed added they may extend that window if necessary. [UPDATE, JANUARY 18: The test has, in fact, been delayed to Sunday due to high winds and waves in the recovery area.]

The IFA will test the Crew Dragon’s abort system’s ability to separate the crew capsule from its Falcon 9 rocket if anything goes awry after launch but before it reaches orbit.

During tomorrow’s test, SpaceX will trigger an abort 84 seconds after the Falcon 9 rocket leaves the launch pad, shutting down its engines.  That will trigger the eight SuperDraco engines on Crew Dragon to ignite and carry the spacecraft away from the rocket for a landing in the ocean about 10 minutes after launch.  A SpaceX team will be there to recover the spacecraft and return it to shore.

Illustration of Crew Dragon with its SuperDraco abort engines firing after separating from Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX

A SpaceX team will be there to recover the spacecraft and return it to shore.  Reed, who is Director of Crew Mission Management at SpaceX, said the company will assess the spacecraft once it comes back to determine if it can be reused.

Reusability is key to SpaceX’s business plan.  The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket being used for this test has been launched three times already.

This definitely will be its final journey.  It will break apart due to aerodynamic forces once the engines shut down and it falls back to Earth.  The first stage will still have some fuel in it and the second stage will be fully fueled.  Reed said they expect “some amount of ignition and probably a fireball of some kind” but stopped just short of calling it an explosion. A SpaceX team will  clean up as much of the debris as possible.

NASA and SpaceX released this animation of how the test will unfold.

Weather officer Mike McAleenan from the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron explained the complicated weather situation for the test whether it takes place tomorrow, Sunday or Monday.

Although the launch weather forecast tomorrow is 90 percent “go,” it also must be good in the recovery area in the Atlantic Ocean. A weather front coming through tonight will mean high winds and waves.  Tomorrow the conditions for launch are good, but poor initially for recovery.  They improve as the day goes on.  If the test is delayed to Sunday, the forecast for recovery improves, but is worse for launch, only 40-50 percent go.  On Monday, the launch forecast worsens even more.

That raises of question of what weather conditions will be required for actual crew launches, not just this test.  “We ask ourselves that,” Reed said, as the company develops its launch commit criteria. The abort can take place anywhere along the rocket’s trajectory to orbit, which more or less parallels the U.S. East Coast and out into the North Atlantic as it heads to the ISS at 51.6 degrees inclination.  The weather would have to be assessed along that route.

Lueders, Director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, cautioned that everything else has to be just right for the test, too.  “You all may be waiting for a while while we’re trying to find the perfect time for us to be able to conduct this test.”

Timeline of SpaceX In-Flight Abort Test. Credit: SpaceX (screengrab from NASA TV)

No one will be aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft, though it could accommodate a crew.  For this test, two anthropomorphic test devices (“dummies”) will be inside instead to capture data on what a crew would experience.  SpaceX anticipates that a crew would be exposed to no more than 4 g’s.

SpaceX will follow the same procedures for the test as it will for crew launches, fueling the rocket just before launch — called “load and go.”  The fueling process can be dangerous, so in the entire history of the U.S. human spaceflight program, it has always been completed before the crew arrives.  SpaceX uses densified liquid oxygen, however, which must be loaded just prior to launch.  It convinced NASA this process is safe and if anything did go wrong, the abort system can trigger while the spacecraft is on the launch pad and take the crew to safety.  SpaceX demonstrated that Pad Abort capability in 2015.

The abort system will be armed two minutes before propellant loading begins, a process that takes about 30 minutes.  As required by NASA, SpaceX successfully demonstrated this procedure on five uncrewed missions already.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (R) and Doug Hurley (L) at SpaceX HQ, Hawthorne, CA, October 10, 2019.  Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani.

The test is one of the final milestones before a crew actually will make a flight on Crew Dragon.  Two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, are training for that mission, Demo-2 (DM-2).   Demo-1 was an uncrewed test that successfully docked with the ISS in March 2019.

Today they did their own rehearsal of suiting up and walking along the crew access arm to the capsule as though they were getting ready to depart for the ISS.  Reed stressed repeatedly the importance of “practice, practice, practice” for all the teams at  SpaceX and  NASA in getting ready for the test and subsequent missions.

Lueders emphasized that “getting this test behind us is a huge milestone” toward launching crews.  SpaceX and Boeing are developing commercial crew systems as Public-Private Partnerships with NASA where the companies will own the systems and NASA purchases services from them.  Today NASA pays Russia to ferry astronauts to and from ISS.  NASA has not been able to launch anyone to ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  Boeing and SpaceX are both years late.  NASA expected these systems to be ready by now, so its last contracted flight with Russia is in April.  NASA is negotiating for an additional seat this fall and perhaps another in spring 2021 in case there are further delays.



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