CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX chalked up another big test flight Wednesday, firing a capsule into the air to try out its new, super-streamlined launch escape system for astronauts.
No humans were on board, just a life-size dummy, for the brief, first-of-its-kind flight. The whole thing lasted barely 1 1/2 minutes.
The Dragon capsule shot off a test stand, not a rocket, and flew up and then out over the Atlantic. Rocket engines on the capsule provided the thrust. Red and white parachutes popped open and lowered the capsule into the ocean, just offshore.
“This flight test unlike any seen in Florida since the days of Apollo,” NASA spokesman Mike Curie, the TV commentator for the test, said after the capsule plopped into the Atlantic. Recovery boats and a barge moved in to retrieve the craft.
SpaceX already hauls cargo to the International Space Station in a Dragon capsule for NASA. The California-based company aims to launch U.S. astronauts to the orbiting lab as early as 2017, allowing NASA to reduce its reliance on Russia to ferry crews.
Boeing is also developing a crew capsule for NASA. The space agency wants to make sure the commercial crew flights will be safe in an emergency, and is insisting on reliable escape systems.
Two hours following the morning test, SpaceX had yet to comment on how everything went, other than to say via Twitter it was ” he 1st critical test in prep for human missions.” It appeared, at least on TV, that the operation unfolded more or less as anticipated. The plan was for the capsule to climb close to a mile high and come down about a mile offshore.
In the days leading up to this first major test of the escape system, SpaceX officials cautioned something might go wrong. The capsule could have been lost at sea or smashed down onto the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, from where it took off. A two-mile area was cleared of personnel before the test, just in case.
SpaceX said its revolutionary abort system, once perfected, will provide an escape for astronauts throughout their climb to orbit, something even NASA’s early manned spacecraft could not do. The pointy launch-escape towers atop the Mercury and Apollo capsules were good for just the initial part of liftoff; the same is true of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The two-man Gemini capsules relied on ejection seats, as did the first four space shuttle flights.
Only the Russians ever used their escape system during a real manned launch — back in 1983 — and it saved two cosmonauts’ lives. The seven Challenger astronauts might have survived their 1986 launch accident with a decent escape system; that disaster, along with the 2003 loss of Columbia and seven astronauts during re-entry at flight’s end, showed NASA just how valuable an abort system can be.
SpaceX plans to use the capsule again later this year, for an abort test following an actual rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. That, too, will be unmanned.
Up until late last week, SpaceX was calling its flight dummy Buster. But the company noted on its website this week that, “Buster the Dummy already works for a great show you may have heard of called MythBusters. Our dummy prefers to remain anonymous for the time being.”