Initial indications from Sunday’s critical “in-flight abort” test show that SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft has blasted over the last hurdle required before launching astronauts from United States territory, according to both Elon Musk, the company’s founder, and NASA.
“It was a picture-perfect mission,” Musk said at a post-test news conference at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Obviously I’m super fired up. This is great!”
Musk announced his space company could send a two-person NASA crew to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as April.
“The sort of collective wisdom at this point is that we’re highly confident that the hardware will be ready in Q1 [first quarter], most likely the end of February, but no later than March. And that we think that it appears probable that the first crewed launch would occur in the second quarter,” Musk said.
If Musk is right, when the Crew Dragon takes astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS, it will be the first time since the 2011 decommissioning of the Space Shuttle programme, thatUS citizenshave launched into space from the US. It will also be the first time that NASA is a customer paying for transportation services provided by a US commercial entity.
NASA has paid up through 2020 an average of $85.4m a seat to Roscosmos, formerly known as Russia’s Federal Space Agency, to send its astronauts on 70 completed and planned missions to the ISS onboard Soyuz rockets. According to a NASA Inspector General report released last year, a SpaceX seat will cost the American taxpayer roughly $55m.
Future crewed launch?
Musk explained that while the launch system could be ready in a matter of weeks, that SpaceX together with NASA would first need to simultaneously analyse the data from Sunday’s test, and to work a launch date into the ISS’s work schedule and other arrivals and departures.
“We have to make some decisions on our end, from the NASA perspective, ” said Jim Bridenstine, the US space agency’s administrator.
“Do we want that first crew to be a short duration, or do we want it to be a longer duration? If it’s going to be a longer duration, then we have to have some additional training for our astronauts to actually be prepared to do things on the International Space Station.”
The ISS is a permanent orbiting microgravity research facility that requires astronauts and cosmonauts to not only perform scientific research but also maintenance tasks to keep the platform working.
Before Musk’s announcement, his Crew Dragon spacecraft underwent the IFA test to prove that the Crew Dragon launch system can not only detect a fatal in-flight event but whisk astronauts away from danger. The mission design placed the Crew Dragon and its Falcon 9 rocket on a trajectory mimicking the flight path it would take if it were going to the ISS and into a near-worst-case launch abort scenario.
At 56 seconds after launch, the rocket-capsule system achieved supersonic speed and began experiencing MaxQ, the moment aerodynamic pressure peaks and places the most mechanical stress on a rocket. A fraction of a second after the Falcon 9’s main engines shut down at one minute and 26 seconds, the Crew Dragon’s Super Draco thruster began to blast, forcing the capsule up and away from its rocket.
The wind sheer then tore the rocket apart forcing the fuel to explode into a spectacular fireball. Just nine minutes and two seconds after liftoff, the capsule splashed down onto choppy seas, roughly 32 kilometres (19 miles) offshore, where recovery teams in speedboats were waiting nearby.