CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX’s high-altitude test of its Crew Dragon launch escape system on Sunday morning (Jan. 19) appears to have been a “picture-perfect mission,” company founder and CEO Elon Musk said.
“I have great admiration and appreciation for the teams at SpaceX and NASA,” Musk said during a postlaunch new conference Sunday. “Without their dedication, this would not have happened.”
The flight tested the emergency escape system on the company’s new astronaut taxi — the Crew Dragon capsule — with SpaceX sacrificing one of its Falcon 9 rockets in the process. “I’m super fired up. This is great,” Musk exclaimed. “It’s really great.”
He gave a few numbers from the uncrewed in-flight abort (IFA) test, which lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) here. “The peak velocity of Dragon during abort was more than double the speed of sound — it went to Mach 2.2 — and achieved an altitude of 40 kilometers, or 131,000 feet,” Musk explained during the briefing.
“I think these are pretty exciting specs — for this abort to have gone more than three times the altitude of a typical airliner and to accelerate that rapidly away from the booster,” he added.
“The booster actually exploded as expected, so that was very exciting,” he said. “And it [Crew Dragon] landed in relatively high winds at the ocean level, which I think helps us envelope the mission for when it is crewed.”
“Overall, as far as we can tell thus far, it was a picture-perfect mission,” he beamed. “It went as well as one could possibly expect. This is a reflection of the dedication, of the hard work, of the SpaceX and NASA teams to achieve this goal.”
Musk said that both he and the teams are looking forward to the next steps.
“I’m super fired up, too; this is really exciting,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s program manager for commercial crew, said during Sunday’s news conference.
“As we talked about when we all got together — gosh, was it a couple of days ago? — we said, this was going to be an exciting test. … I think you guys saw today that it was a very exciting test.”
On Sunday, a Falcon 9 with a thrice-flown first stage sat perched on its launch pad at KSC’s historic Pad 39A — the same launch pad that hosted the agency’s Apollo and space shuttle programs. At 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT), the Falcon roared to life, toting Crew Dragon high in the sky.
Eighty-four-seconds after liftoff, the capsule’s abort system was triggered, and the craft pushed itself away from its launcher. The Falcon 9 rocket exploded in a brilliant fireball soon after, breaking apart due to increasing aerodynamic forces.
The IFA was designed to show NASA that the capsule has what it takes to keep crewmembers safe in the unlikely event of a launch emergency, a requirement before NASA will allow astronauts to fly on it. With this apparent success, SpaceX cleared its last major hurdle before completing its ultimate goal with Crew Dragon: launching humans to the space station.
“It’s surreal,” Musk told Space.com. “I can’t believe we’ve gotten this far.”
“Personally, I am super fired up and excited,” he added, “and it feels like you guys are too, as well as the public.”
“It’s just going to be wonderful to get astronauts back into orbit from American soil after almost a decade of not being able to do so. I think that’s just super exciting.”
NASA’s fleet of space shuttles retired in 2011, leaving the agency dependent upon Russia to ferry its astronauts to and from the space station. In 2014, NASA selected two companies — Boeing and SpaceX — to build its next generation of astronaut taxis.
SpaceX launched its first Crew Dragon mission, an unpiloted test flight to the station called Demo-1, in March 2019. Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort test was delayed when that same capsule exploded during a ground test last April, forcing months of investigation, upgrades and a series of successful static-fire tests to make way for last weekend’s launch.
In 2019, Boeing also launched a pad abort test of its own Starliner spacecraft, as well as an unpiloted test flight to orbit. That orbital flight test, however, did not reach the space station as planned due to a mission clock software error.
“It is absolutely true we’ll have setbacks,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during Sunday’s news conference. “I think we’re where we need to be, but it hasn’t been without pain. And going forward, I think we’re going to be better for it.”
SpaceX said it expected to lose its Falcon 9 rocket during this test, and just as expected, the booster burst into flames shortly after Crew Dragon separation. The fireball occurred about 10 seconds after Crew Dragon separated, so at this point, the capsule was a significant distance away. But what if it hadn’t been?
Musk said Crew Dragon is robust enough to have withstood the fireball. “Since the spacecraft has a very powerful base heat shield, and even leeward side heat shield, it should be really not significantly affected by a fireball,” he said. “It could quite literally, like something out of ‘Star Wars,’ fly right out of the fireball.”
Musk also noted that Crew Dragon could conduct an escape at any point during the mission, right up until the craft reaches orbit — a feature the space shuttle did not have.
In-flight anomalies are rare, but they do happen. In October 2018, for example, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin were on their way to the space station when their launcher — a Russian Soyuz — experienced an in-flight anomaly. Thanks to an escape system, the duo were carried to safety.
NASA wants to ensure that, if one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets were to have a similar anomaly, its astronauts would still be brought home safely; this is what the in-flight abort test is all about.
And agency astronauts were paying close attention to the mission. Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are the first two people who will fly on Dragon once the craft gets the green light from NASA; they’re booked on a test flight to the space station called Demo-2. The duo were in the firing room during the launch, monitoring the capsule’s performance.
Behnken said that the space shuttle had to use some of its systems in nontraditional ways in order to carry out an abort. “To have the ability to get away if anything goes wrong, and not having those blackout zones [like with shuttle], was very comforting from my perspective,” he said.
“Our families were certainly watching from back home,” Hurley added. “Obviously, they’re keenly interested in those kinds of things.”
Hurley said the test was a neat thing to see. But both crewmembers are anxiously awaiting analysis of all the flight data, to get details on how Crew Dragon fared on Sunday. “You have a whole bunch of different things going through your mind and emotions you experience during a launch,” Hurley explained. “Obviously, this was a key one leading up to our launch, so I think that’s pretty exciting.”
“When the vehicle is back, we’ll see what the data shows and go from there,” he said. “But it certainly is a confidence-builder from our standpoint.”
So, what comes next? “The data and telemetry looks perfect,” said Musk, “but we need to recover the spacecraft and make sure there’s nothing wrong that didn’t show up on the telemetry.”
After a data review, SpaceX hopes that NASA will clear Crew Dragon to carry humans. Once that happens, Demo-2 can get off the ground.
Musk and Lueders said that could happen in the next couple of months. Musk said the hardware needed to fly that first crewed mission will be ready by the end of February. Right now NASA and SpaceX are trying to nail down the details of that first mission.
According to Bridenstine, the agency is trying to assess whether that first mission should be a short two-week stay at the space station or if it should be a longer-duration mission. He said the agency hopes to make that decision in the next few weeks.
“This was a test,” Bridenstine said. “It looked beautiful; we all loved watching it. But now the work begins for evaluating everything that we’re going to learn on this test.”