The private launch company SpaceX completed a spectacular in-flight emergency demonstration today, in a fiery final hurdle to again sending astronauts to space from American soil.
As hundreds of thousands watched on live streams, escape motors blasted the company’s NASA-financed Crew Dragon spacecraft safely away from its launch rocket, which then exploded in cloud-obscured view of spectators on the ground.
The reusable $50 million Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated in an orange and white fireball soon after shutting down its nine engines in a simulated failure, as its flat leading edge was suddenly exposed to the atmosphere at supersonic speed, just 20 kilometers above the Florida launch site. Social media sites were quickly flooded with comments mourning the death of the historic “B1046” booster – the first final-version Falcon 9 to fly, in 2018 – but the company had warned that initial efforts to save it had been abandoned as “not possible”. SpaceX engineers had hoped that the remaining rocket-grade kerosene fuel would burn up during disintegration to spare the ocean below from fuel pollution, and explode it did.
However, the Silicon Valley-styled Crew Dragon capsule that had ridden on the rocket’s nose parachuted gently to the ocean, thus passing a crucial safety test that could soon see astronauts riding to space on an American rocket for the first time since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011.
The pricey test from Cape Kennedy was required by NASA to validate SpaceX’s ability to power NASA astronauts to safety at any point in the mission.
Earlier, Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Chief Engineer, had lamented that the rocket would be “destroyed in Dragon fire”, and, ahead of the launch, warned that the test was “a risky mission, as its pushing the envelope in so many ways.”
On Friday, Kathryn Lueders, program manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said an in-flight abort test of this kind was unprecedented for NASA, and that it would be “exciting”.
At 84 seconds into flight, Crew Dragon’s eight SuperDraco Engines fired their 130 000 pounds of thrust for just 9 seconds to push it away from the threat of its launcher; smaller thrusters stabilized the craft after it’s top altitude of 40 kilometers; and its unpressurized “trunk” section detached for the capsule’s parachute deployment and splashdown.
The two NASA astronauts now set to ride on the next Crew Dragon – Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken – performed “dry” dress rehearsals in their sleek, newly designed space suits ahead of the launch, as practice for their likely trip to the International Space Station this spring. On the abort test, two mannequins representing Hurley and Behnken experienced about 4Gs of acceleration in their seats as the spacecraft roared away from the failing rocket. Other sensors on the seats will provide a fuller picture of what they might experience in a real emergency.
The splashdown triggered a second wave of action, as military medics parachuted into the ocean, and SpaceX and Air Force recovery specialists raced to the capsule in small boats. At the capsule, they used sensors to test for any leaks or residue in the highly toxic hypergolic fuel that SpaceX elected to use for its escape motors due to its instant ignition property.
In anticipation of the likely destruction of their otherwise reusable rocket, SpaceX stripped the expensive, non-essential components from the Falcon 9 prior to launch, including its titanium grid fins, its landing legs, and its second stage engine. However, they had to fuel up the second stage as ballast to make the mission as close to a crewed mission as possible.
In 2016, the private space launch company owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin, was able to recover it’s much smaller launch vehicle, New Shepherd, after a similar, but lower speed in-flight abort test.
But today’s mission now puts Crew Dragon in pole position to win the manned race to space between the two companies contracted to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program: SpaceX and Boeing.
They are to replace the cost of seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft that NASA has been paying – at about $80 million per seat – to loft its astronauts for nine years.
Today’s mission means that SpaceX could launch a historic commercial crewed mission as soon as April.
Here’s what you need to know:
The abort happened at the point of maximum danger for potential astronauts
The abort was timed for the most dangerous moment on ascent, known as “max-Q” – when the speed of the rocket and the thickness of the air, combined, create the greatest aerodynamic pressure on the nose of the rocket. In theory, therefore: if a spacecraft can survive an abort at this moment, it should be able to survive it at any other moment in a real, crewed emergency.
NASA has allowed Boeing – which does not recover its Atlas boosters – to avoid a similar costly in-flight abort test, and to rather test its safety abort systems in more extensive ground tests and simulations.
While Russia’s Soyuz capsule uses a “pull” escape system, Dragon – like Boeing’s Starliner – uses an integrated “push system”, where 8 SuperDraco engines shove the spacecraft away from the booster rocket. The Space Shuttle had no mechanical abort system.
The real-life use of astronaut abort systems is incredibly rare
Of the 320 crewed space missions ever flown around the world, abort systems have only been triggered three times, according to everydayastronaut.com. And they have only saved astronaut lives twice. In 1983, an abort system carried a Soyuz crew safely away from a rocket that caught fire on the pad, and, in 2018, a secondary abort system saved another crew – including a US astronaut – after a booster engine malfunctioned high in the atmosphere. In one case in 1966, a launch abort system actually caused the death of a technician on the ground, when delays – and the turning of the earth – caused a Russian capsule to believe it was off-course, and it’s abort motors then ignited it’s launch vehicle on the pad.
The lead has switched several times in the Boeing-SpaceX race to manned spaceflight
Measured against NASA’s initial goal of launching crews on commercial rockets by 2017, both companies have been slow in the Commercial Crew race.
But Boeing started with an in-built lead, by winning almost $2 billion more from NASA than SpaceX to achieve exactly the same thing: developing a spacecraft that would deliver six NASA crews to the ISS. Musk recently took to Twitter to complain about the apparent unfairness of receiving just $2.6 billion when Boeing had received $4.8 billion for the identical role.
However, SpaceX’s costs are clearly lower, because it is the only orbital launch provider in the world that can land and reuse the most expensive part of it’s launch system: it’s boosters.
Boeing also benefited from years of prior tests of its innovative air bag landing system, in which compressed nitrogen and oxygen gas fills bags beneath the capsule that allow a pinpoint, comfortable touch-down on land. The Crew Dragon has to land at sea, just like the capsules of the Apollo era.
But problems with suppliers and manufacturing delayed Starliner in 2018, allowing SpaceX to take the lead with the first uncrewed test flight to the ISS in February 2018. Musk then declared that SpaceX could launch crews by the summer of 2018.
However, the same capsule from that test then exploded on a test stand in April, in a plume of orange smoke seen from miles away. Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability, later revealed that a plug of oxidizer fuel had come loose in the pressurized tubing, and smashed into a closed valve like a bullet. SpaceX then replaced the valve system with an old-fashioned but reliable “burst disc” system.
The race went back and forth throughout the fall, as both companies experienced major problems with parachutes – including a Boeing test flight in which one parachute simply failed to deploy..
Boeing had the chance to catch up in December, with it’s own uncrewed mission to the ISS. But Starliner behaved bizarrely immediately after being released into space by it’s launch rocket. Rather than firing it’s own primary thrusters to reach the ISS orbit, it began frantically firing it’s small attitude thrusters – wasting so much fuel that an override command from mission control could no longer get it to it’s target orbit. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein said an error in the spacecraft’s internal clock caused it to “believe” that it was in a different orbit.
Although Starliner was able to land, it is widely believed that it’s failure to reach the ISS means that Boeing will have to launch another uncrewed mission before NASA could give it the green light to take people there.
The door was left open for SpaceX to get that nod, with a successful in-flight abort test – and the winning line now awaits them as soon as April.
NASA’s insistence on the test suggests major problems for SpaceX’s next, giant spaceship
Although its own Shuttle had no mechanical abort or escape system, NASA has moved the safety goalposts for its two commercial partners in its Commercial Crew Program by demanding integrated, almost foolproof escape systems. (The first four Shuttle flights did have ejection seats – but only for crew in the upper deck, and for so few escape scenarios that they were quickly abandoned). And NASA’s willingness to have a partner destroy a $50 million launch vehicle, today – simply to gain real-world confirmation of countless ground tests and simulations – suggests that NASA is dead serious about redundancy in safety options for it’s future crews, no matter the cost.
This poses major problems for what Musk considers to the true solution for manned spaceflight: his giant, next-generation “Starship”.
Now under development in Texas, Starship is intended to be a fully reusable spacecraft that can carry up to 100 people to low earth orbit, the Moon or even Mars. Coupled with its 31-engine Super Heavy booster, it is to stand 383 feet tall, and generate almost twice the thrust of the giant Saturn V rockets of the Apollo era.
The stainless steel Starship is supposed to glide through the upper atmosphere belly-first, bleeding off speed like a skydiver, and then execute a series of maneuvers and engine burns for a powered, tail-first landing.
However, there are currently no plans for any in-flight escape systems for Starship, and no obvious options to install one, given its one-piece design. And the Shuttle could at least use its wings to glide.
So any astronauts on-board Starship – in free-fall until a short distance from the ground – would have to rely totally on faith that the spacecraft would stick the landing, with just seconds to know whether or not the landing engines and maneuvers had worked correctly. Most space industry observers believe there is little chance that NASA would certify Starship for manned spaceflight with its last-second, all-or-nothing landing design, and perhaps no chance, after today’s demonstration.
So Crew Dragon may end up seeing far more years of service than Musk intended.