CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) plans to blast off a Dragon capsule — sans rocket — from its Florida launch site at the end of the year, the first of two tests to demonstrate how passengers aboard the spacecraft could safely fly away from a malfunctioning Falcon rocket.
The pad abort test, slated for December, will be staged from the company’s launch complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center. For the test, a flight-like, full-scale Dragon capsule will ignite its SuperDraco thrusters, fly itself out over the Atlantic Ocean and parachute into the water.
“We’re going to demonstrate our ability to get away from the Falcon 9 from zero altitude and zero airspeed if we were ever having a bad day on the pad,” said Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who now heads SpaceX’s commercial crew program.
“This is not a demonstration. This is a full-scale pad abort test for certification as well as risk mitigation,” Reisman said.
The capsule will be attached to a stand with an interface that is identical to one used to connect Dragon capsules to their Falcon 9 launchers.
“Our main goal is to make it as flight-like as possible so that we get the most accurate data,” Reisman told SpaceNews.
The Dragon should reach an altitude of 1,200 to 1,500 meters before its parachute opens and it splashes down into the Atlantic Ocean.
“Hopefully, we never do it for real,” Reisman said. “It’s like a car airbag — good to know it’s there and that it’s reliable, but you hope you never deploy it.”
A second, more ambitious in-flight abort test is planned for 2014 when another Dragon capsule will fly itself away from a Falcon 9 rocket firing at full speed.
“At the worst possible moment, we’re going to have that Dragon light up its SuperDracos and fly away … demonstrating the capability to deliver the crew safely should the Falcon 9 be having a bad day,” Reisman said.
“Having strapped into a rocket before, I can tell you that I have a personal, emotional reason why I want to build a vehicle that is safer than anything that’s flown before by an order of magnitude,” said Reisman, who launched twice on NASA space shuttles for missions to the international space station.
The in-flight abort test, scheduled for April 2014, marks the last of 14 milestones SpaceX must complete under its current $440 million Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities contract with NASA.
Depending on follow-on funding, the tests would position SpaceX to conduct its first crewed Dragon flight with company astronauts aboard in 2015.