Successful In-Flight Abort Test Moves NASA Closer to Sending Astronauts to ISS from American Soil

Successful In-Flight Abort Test Moves NASA Closer to Sending Astronauts to ISS from American Soil

SpaceX’s successful test this morning of an abort system to return astronauts safely to Earth if anything goes awry during launch moves the United States closer to restoring the capability to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).  SpaceX’s Crew Dragon system could take two NASA astronauts to ISS in the second quarter of this year if data analysis and other tests go as planned.  NASA has not been able to launch anyone to ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  It currently pays Russia for crew transportation services.

SpaceX sacrificed one of its Falcon 9 rockets in order to do this test.  No one was aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft, which was recovered.

After weather delays yesterday and early this morning, the rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 10:30 am ET.

Just 84 seconds later, SpaceX triggered an abort by deliberately shutting down the Falcon 9’s Merlin engines.

Eight SuperDraco engines integrated into the Crew Dragon capsule then fired to pull the spacecraft quickly away from the rocket.  As planned, the capsule continued to ascend to an altitude of 40 kilometers where its smaller Draco thrusters reoriented it for splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.  It jettisoned unneeded sections (the “trunk” and heat shield), deployed two drogue parachutes and then four main parachutes before setting down in the water about 9 minutes after liftoff.  Recovery teams were waiting nearby.

The Falcon 9, with its second stage still fully fueled, fell back towards Earth. It was ripped apart by aerodynamic forces and exploded.

SpaceX Falcon 9 exploding, as expected, after triggering abort during Crew Dragon In-Flight Abort test, January 19, 2020. Screengrab.

During a post-test press conference, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said a crew would have experienced a maximum of 3.5 g’s of force if they were aboard.  That compares with the 7 g’s NASA astronaut Nick Hague and his Russian crewmate Aleksey Ovchinin endured when their Soyuz rocket aborted during their October 10, 2018 launch.

Bridenstine, NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Lueders, SpaceX founder and Chief Engineer Elon Musk and two NASA astronauts assigned to a future Crew Dragon flight, Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover, all appeared ebullient. Musk and Lueders both said they were “fired up.”  Hopkins and Glover remarked they had heard from their families, who were watching from home and welcomed its success.

This is the last major test before SpaceX conducts a crewed test flight to ISS.  The two NASA astronauts who will be on that Demo-2 (DM-2) mission, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, were with the team recovering the spacecraft instead of at the press conference, but spoke with reporters later.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (L) and Bob Behnken (R) at SpaceX Headquarters, Oct. 10, 2019: Photo credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Hopkins and Glover will fly the first “post-certification mission” (PCM) after DM-2 when NASA officially certifies the system for operational use.

Originally, the plan was for DM-2 to be a short test flight and the first PCM would be a long-duration mission.  ISS crews typically remain for 4-6 months.

Bridenstine said today NASA is debating whether to make DM-2 also a long-duration mission since NASA’s last seat on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will launch in April. After that only one American will be aboard ISS until these commercial crew systems are flying.  NASA is negotiating with Russia for at least one more seat on a Soyuz this fall, but that still would mean only one American and two Russians on board, which presents operational issues if spacewalks are needed, for example.

NASA astronauts Victor Glover (L) and Mike Hopkins (R) in front of a SpaceX Crew Dragon. Credit: NASA

NASA has been paying Russia to ferry astronauts to and from ISS since 2011.  When operational, Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will restore America’s ability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.  The two systems are being built as Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) with NASA where the companies retain ownership and NASA simply purchases services from them.  NASA hopes to be just one of many customers in the future, but Musk said today his company has “nothing to announce at this time” regarding deals to fly non-NASA astronauts.

With the test flight behind them, the obvious question is when DM-2 will take place.  Musk said the hardware will be at KSC by the end of February, but there still is work to do.  Lueders explained that, among other things, NASA wants more tests of the parachutes.  Those used today are of a new Mark 3 design because earlier versions were flawed.   She said this was the second system-level test of the parachutes and NASA wants two more.  Bridenstine added that NASA still has to decide whether DM-2 will be a short- or long-duration mission, which could affect crew training.

All in all, they agreed that the second quarter of this year is the most “probable” time for DM-2.

One of the outstanding issues is the launch commit criteria for crew launches. Usually weather is only a factor for the few minutes it takes for a rocket to liftoff from its launch pad and begin its journey to space.  But now the weather for possible aborts will have to considered. The abort can take place anywhere along the rocket’s trajectory, 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.

This test was delayed largely due to high winds and waves in the recovery area, not at the pad.  During a pre-launch press conference on Friday, SpaceX’s Benji Reed was queried about what weather conditions will be acceptable when astronauts embark on their trips to the ISS.  “We ask ourselves that,” Reed replied.

This would not be the first time when weather at abort sites comes into play.  Space shuttle launches were constrained by weather at KSC both for launch and a potential Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort, as well as in Europe and the west coast of Africa where Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) sites were located depending on what trajectory the shuttle was using.


This article has been updated.

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