CAPE CANAVERAL— SpaceX completed the last big test of its crew capsule before launching astronauts in as little as two months, mimicking an emergency escape shortly after liftoff Sunday.
No one was aboard for the wild ride in the skies above Cape Canaveral, just two mannequins.
A Falcon 9 rocket blasted off as normal, but just over a minute into its supersonic flight, the Dragon crew capsule catapulted off the top 12 miles (20 kilometers) above the Atlantic. Powerful thrusters on the capsule propelled it up and out of harm’s way, as the rocket engines deliberately shut down and the booster tumbled out of control in a giant fireball.
The capsule reached an altitude of about 27 miles (44 kilometers) before parachuting into the ocean just offshore to bring the nine-minute test flight to a close and pave the way for two NASA astronauts to climb aboard next time.
SpaceX flight controllers at the company’s California headquarters cheered every milestone — especially the splashdown. Everything appeared to go well despite the choppy seas and overcast skies.
Recycled from three previous launches, the SpaceX rocket was destroyed as it crashed into the sea in pieces. The company founded and led by Elon Musk normally recovers its boosters, landing them upright on a floating platform or back at the launch site.
“That’s the main objective of this test, is to show that we can carry the astronauts safely away from the rocket in case anything’s going wrong,” said SpaceX’s Benji Reed, director of crew mission management.
“This test is very important to us ... a huge practice session,” Reed added.
NASA’s commercial crew program manager, Kathy Lueders, said the launch abort test was “our last open milestone” before allowing SpaceX to launch Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken to the International Space Station.
She said that could happen as soon as March. NASA astronauts have not launched from the U.S. since 2011 when the space shuttle program ended.
“We are purposely failing a launch vehicle to make sure that our abort system on the spacecraft, that will be flying for our crews, works,” Lueders said in advance of the demo.
Delayed a day by bad weather, Sunday’s launch from Kennedy Space Center brought together hundreds of SpaceX, NASA and Air Force employees on land, at sea and in the air. Tourists and locals alike packed the adjoining visitor complex and nearby beaches to see the dramatic fiery spectacle of an out-of-control rocket.
“Dragon high altitude, supersonic abort test is a risky mission, as it’s pushing the envelope in so many ways,” Musk tweeted minutes before liftoff.
Hurley and Behnken, the NASA astronauts assigned to the first SpaceX crew, monitored the flight from the firing room, including the capsule recovery effort They took part in a dress rehearsal Friday, suiting up and heading to the launch pad.
Preferring to focus on the moon and Mars, NASA hired SpaceX and Boeing for billions of dollars to transport astronauts to and from the space station. That should have happened long before now, but both companies struggled with technical problems, adding years of delay and forcing NASA to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars extra for Russian rocket rides.
SpaceX successfully flew a Crew Dragon to the space station last March without anyone on board, but the capsule exploded a month later during ground testing. The emergency escape thrusters — the kind used in Sunday’s test — had to be retooled. In all, SpaceX has tested these powerful Super Draco thrusters some 700 times.
Last month, meanwhile, Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule ended up in the wrong orbit on its first test flight and had to skip the space station. The previous month, only two of the Starliner’s three parachutes deployed during a launch abort test.
Lueders said it’s too soon to know whether Boeing will need to send another Starliner to the space station without a crew or go straight to launching astronauts later this year. An investigation team is still looking into why the Starliner’s automated timer was off by 11 hours during the December test flight.