SuperDraco test
A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft fires its SuperDraco launch abort thrusters during a static-fire test at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Nov. 13. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — SpaceX performed a successful static-fire test Jan. 11 of the Falcon 9 booster that will launch a Crew Dragon spacecraft on a test of its abort system.

The Falcon 9 first stage that will be used for the in-flight abort test fired its nine main engines in the test shortly at 10 a.m. Eastern at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX, in a tweet shortly after the test, confirmed the booster was ready for launch Jan. 18.

That launch will confirm the effectiveness of the Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco launch abort thrusters to pull the capsule away from the rocket in the event of a problem during launch. The capsule will then descend under parachutes for a splashdown in the Atlantic several dozen kilometers off the Florida coast.

That separation will take place about 88 seconds after liftoff, according to an Oct. 30 presentation by Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee. The capsule that will be used on the test was originally built for the Demo-2 crewed test flight, but moved up to the in-flight abort test after the Dragon that flew the Demo-1 uncrewed test in March 2019, originally scheduled to then fly on the in-flight abort test, was destroyed in a test of its SuperDraco thrusters in April.

Prior to that April incident, NASA and SpaceX expected the in-flight abort test to take place some time in the summer. Lueders, at that October meeting, praised SpaceX for being able to make the changes to the Crew Dragon spacecraft that came out of the investigation into the incident and only delay the test by about six months. “Pretty phenomenal turnaround,” she said.

A November 2018 environment assessment by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation of the in-flight abort test, which estimated the Dragon separation will take place between 83 and 100 seconds after liftoff, stated that the Dragon will separate when the rocket is between 14.6 and 27.8 kilometers in altitude and at a speed of between Mach 1.5 and 2.5.

The in-flight abort test is one of the last major milestones before the Demo-2 crewed test, which will carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station. In a tweet last month, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said that the Crew Dragon spacecraft for that mission should be at the launch site in February, “but completing all safety reviews will probably take a few more months.”

The Falcon 9 first stage for the in-flight abort test, designated B1046, is the first Block 5 version of the rocket and made three prior launches between May and December 2018. The second stage will be a flight model but will not have a Merlin engine since the abort will take place prior to when the second stage would ignite.

The launch will also be the final flight of that first stage. The 2018 FAA report stated that, after the Dragon separates, “the first and second stage would become unstable and break up” several kilometers offshore. Simulations of the breakup, included in the report, showed that all the debris would fall into the ocean, most of which will sink. SpaceX will recover any debris that floats.

Musk confirmed in Jan. 11 tweets that the Falcon 9 first stage will not survive the test. “We tried to design a way to save B1046, but not possible,” he wrote. “Destroyed in Dragon fire.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...