Dragon v2 interior
Interior of SpaceX's Dragon v2, the co-winner of NASA's CCtCap award. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. completed qualification tests of the SuperDraco thruster that will power the launch abort system on the crewed version of the Dragon space capsule the company is developing with financial aid from NASA.

SpaceX performed multiple SuperDraco hot fires at its McGregor, Texas, test facility in April and May, according to a press release issued May 28.

SuperDraco is intended for use with Dragon Version 2, a crewed version of the spacecraft SpaceX already uses to deliver cargo to and from the space station under a NASA contract signed in 2008. SpaceX founder and Chief Executive Elon Musk unveiled Dragon Version 2 at the company’s Hawthorne, California, headquarters May 29 in a live Web event. Each Dragon Version 2 will use eight of the restartable thrusters, each of which produces up to 16,000 pounds of thrust, according to SpaceX’s press release. The abort system would function as intended even if one SuperDraco failed, SpaceX said.

SpaceX is scheduled to test the launch abort system at the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, later this year, the company said in the press release. The test is a $30 million milestone under the roughly $440 million Commercial Crew Integrated Capability contract NASA gave the company in August 2012. At that time, NASA and SpaceX thought the pad abort test would be done by December 2013.

In the pad abort test, Dragon will be propelled from the top of a mocked-up Falcon 9 rocket, its intended launch vehicle, to determine whether the escape system would work in the event of an anomaly early in the launch process.

SuperDraco’s engine chamber is a 3-D-printed part, made from a nickel-chromium alloy known by its designer, Special Metals of New Hartford, New York, as Inconel. In the press release, Musk said 3-D printing — also known as additive manufacturing — allows “high-performing engine parts [to] be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods.”

Besides launch abort, SuperDraco thrusters will allow SpaceX’s spacecraft to land propulsively on the ground, the company says. Propulsive Dragon landing tests are slated to begin at McGregor under the DragonFly program currently under environmental review by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

“You’ll be able to land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter,” Musk said during the May 29 unveiling of Dragon Version 2. “That’s something a modern spacecraft should be able to do.”

The upgraded craft, with its retro-futuristic fins, also features an improved version of the heat shield used on the current-generation Dragon, Musk said. The new Dragon could accomplish its helicopter-like landing with only two engines, although it will still carry a parachute. The first test flight, which would be uncrewed, could happen as soon as late 2015, said Musk.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program aims to replace the space shuttle’s crew-carrying capacity to the international space station with one of three commercially designed systems by late 2017. Boeing Space Exploration of Houston and Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Louisville, Colorado, are also in the competition. An award for the fourth major phase of the program, which is expected to culminate with the first U.S.-launched crewed flight to station since the space shuttle flew its final mission in 2011, is expected in July or August.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.