SpaceX executes ground-based test firing for Crew Dragon’s launch escape system

Alan Boyle
Thrusters blaze during a static-fire test of the launch abort system on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. (SpaceX via Twitter)

SpaceX went the distance today with a static-fire test of its Crew Dragon space taxi’s launch escape system — the same type of test that ended in a costly explosion when it was conducted in April.

A photo released after the firing shows the Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco thrusters blazing away on the test stand at SpaceX’s Florida facility. The full-duration firing brings the company one step closer to flying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station next year.

“SpaceX and NASA teams are now reviewing test data and working toward an in-flight demonstration of Crew Dragon’s launch escape system,” SpaceX tweeted.

The system is designed to come into play if an emergency arises during the early stages of the Crew Dragon’s ascent to orbit. Thrusters would propel the capsule and its crew away from their Falcon 9 rocket, setting the stage for a safe, parachute-assisted landing.

SpaceX successfully tested the system’s adequacy for a launch pad emergency back in 2015, but it wants to conduct an in-flight test as well. Depending on the review of today’s test data, that in-flight abort test could come within weeks.

The company already flew an uncrewed demonstration mission to the space station and back in March. If the upcoming in-flight demonstration of the abort system succeeds, SpaceX could conceivably go ahead with its first-ever crewed flight to the space station early next year.

SpaceX was at this point in its development timeline in April. That’s when the earlier static-fire test of the launch escape system went awry, leading to the destruction of the Crew Dragon capsule. Investigators determined that a propellant leak forced a slug of liquid oxidizer through a helium check valve at high pressure, sparking an explosion in the thruster system’s titanium plumbing.

To address the problem, SpaceX redesigned the pressurization system to use different types of seals known as burst disks.

NASA is supporting the development of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon — an advanced version of its robotic Dragon cargo capsule — as well as Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule to serve as space taxis for space station crew members. When the Crew Dragon and Starliner enter service, they’ll be the first U.S.-made spaceships to send people to orbit since the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011.

Just last week, Boeing conducted a successful test of the Starliner’s launch abort system in New Mexico. Even though one of the Starliner’s three parachutes didn’t open, Boeing and NASA are expected to go ahead with an uncrewed Starliner test flight to the space station and back next month.

Like SpaceX, Boeing expects to launch its first crewed demonstration flight early next year. While SpaceX uses the Falcon 9 as the Crew Dragon’s launch vehicle, Boeing uses the Atlas 5 rocket — which is built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture involving Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Update for 3:50 p.m. PT Nov. 13: NASA provided more details about today’s static-fire test in a blog posting:

“The engine tests, conducted near SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, began with two burns for a duration of one-second each for two of Crew Dragon’s 16 Draco thrusters. The Draco thrusters are used for on-orbit maneuvering and attitude control, and would also be used for re-orientation during certain in-flight launch escapes. Following these initial Draco thruster burns, the team completed a full-duration firing for approximately nine seconds of Crew Dragon’s eight SuperDraco engines. The SuperDraco engines are designed to accelerate Dragon away from the F9 launch vehicle in the event of an emergency after liftoff.”

“In quick succession, immediately after the SuperDracos shut down, two Draco thrusters fired and all eight SuperDraco flaps closed, mimicking the sequence required to reorient the spacecraft in-flight to a parachute deploy attitude and close the flaps prior to re-entry. The full sequence, from SuperDraco startup to flap closure, spanned approximately 70 seconds. …

“Today’s tests will help validate the launch escape system ahead of Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort demonstration planned as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX and NASA will now review the data from today’s test, perform detailed hardware inspections, and establish a target launch date for the In-Flight Abort Test.”

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