SpaceX performs in-flight abort test of Crew Dragon spacecraft

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Updated 1:30 p.m. Eastern after post-test briefing.

WASHINGTON — SpaceX successfully tested the abort system of its Crew Dragon spacecraft Jan. 19, one of the final milestones before a crewed test flight that could take place as soon as this spring.

A Falcon 9 carrying the Crew Dragon spacecraft lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 10:30 a.m. Eastern, one day after poor weather postponed the previous launch attempt.

About 84 seconds after liftoff, the Crew Dragon ignited its eight SuperDraco thrusters, pulling the vehicle away from the Falcon 9. The spacecraft later jettisoned its trunk section and deployed parachutes, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean about 32 kilometers offshore nearly nine minutes after liftoff.

While a detailed review of the data from the test will likely take weeks, both NASA and SpaceX leadership said the test appeared to go as expected. “Overall, as far as we can tell thus far, it is a picture-perfect mission. It went as well as one could possibly expect,” said Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, at a post-test briefing. He added he was “super fired-up” about the test.

“Another amazing milestone is complete for our very-soon-to-be project, which is launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the briefing. “By all accounts this was a very successful test.”

Bridenstine said that while this test was the “final major flight milestone” in the development of Crew Dragon, more work was still ahead, such as testing of the parachutes. Kathy Lueders, manager of the commercial crew program at NASA, said later that this flight served as the second “system-level” test of the spacecraft’s upgraded parachutes, with two more such tests planned in the coming weeks.

At the briefing, Musk said that the Crew Dragon spacecraft that will fly the Demo-2 test flight, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board, should be ready by the end of February. However, various reviews for the system, as well as ISS schedules, mean it will take some time even after the spacecraft is ready before the mission can launch.

“The collective wisdom at this point is that we’re highly confident the hardware will be ready in [quarter] 1,” Musk said. “It appears probable that the first crewed launch will occur in the second quarter.”

The Falcon 9 rocket used for the test broke up and exploded several seconds after the Crew Dragon escape. That breakup and subsequent fireball was expected, as SpaceX officials said prior to the test that the first stage booster, making its fourth flight, would not survive the test.

“Fairly quickly, Falcon will be going through a lot of aerodynamic issues,” said Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX, during a pre-flight press conference Jan. 17. With the capsule no longer on top of the rocket, the top of the upper stage became “a big air scoop,” he said. “At some point we expect the Falcon will start to break up” with some of the remaining fuel and oxidizer igniting.

Among those watching the test were NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins, who will fly the first post-certification, or operational, Crew Dragon mission along with two international astronauts yet to be assigned.

“So far, what we’ve seen is what we expected,” Glover said at the post-test briefing. This test, he and Hopkins noted, was particularly important for their families ahead of their flight on the spacecraft as soon as late this year.

“I did receive a text from my wife right afterwards,” Hopkins said. “Everything looked good from her perspective.”