A Dec. 2013 static-fire test of SpaceX's SuperDraco rocket engine. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — Tests of the crew escape system for SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, once scheduled for November 2014 and, more recently, January, now will take place “later this year,” a company spokesman said Jan. 14.

“I don’t have an update on dates,” SpaceX spokesman John Taylor told SpaceNews. “We can be more specific if we get a little bit closer.”

NASA is partially funding these tests under the milestone-based Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) Space Act Agreement it awarded SpaceX in 2012. That deal is separate from the more recent Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract the company got in September to complete development of crewed versions of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft.

SpaceX is competing with Boeing Space Exploration of Houston to replace the retired space shuttle as NASA’s means of sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Converting the Dragon, now used to resupply the space station under a separate NASA contract, into a passenger-carrying vehicle is at the core of Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX’s commercial crew work. Crucial to that conversion is a test of the abort system that would carry the crew to safety in the event of a launch mishap.

Two such tests are planned as part of the CCiCap effort, under which SpaceX receives NASA funding upon completion of self-imposed development milestones. These particular tests would net the company a combined $60 million.

The first test is a pad abort test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Dragon would be mounted to a mock-up Falcon 9 rocket and attempt to boost itself away from the pad using its hydrazine-fueled SuperDraco thrusters.

SpaceX would attempt to repeat the feat at altitude in the next test, slated to take place at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, using a live Falcon 9. The rocket’s ascent will create aerodynamic forces that make it more difficult for the Dragon to peel itself away during this test.

When SpaceX signed its CCiCap agreement with NASA, the company expected to do the pad abort test in December 2013 and the ascent abort test in April 2014. In August, Garrett Reisman, SpaceX Dragon Rider program manager, told attendees of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2014 conference the tests had slipped to November 2014 and January 2015.

SpaceX’s combined take on NASA’s commercial crew effort is $3.04 billion, including $2.6 billion under CCtCap and $440 million under CCiCap. Boeing, which plans to launch its CST-100 crew capsule aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5, got a combined $4.66 billion, including $4.2 billion for CCtCap and $460 million under CCiCap.


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.