Today, SpaceX detonated the engines of its new passenger spacecraft, the Crew Dragon, during a ground test at Cape Canaveral, Florida. This allowed the company to carry out an important test flight of the vehicle in the coming months. If this test flight is going well, SpaceX is ready to fly people on the Crew Dragon for the first time next year.
The engines that SpaceX fired today are part of the Crew Dragon's Emergency Cancellation System – a vital part of the spacecraft. This is activated when a catastrophe occurs during takeoff. The Crew Dragon is said to fly into space on one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets. However, if the missile fails for any reason in the air, the emergency engines embedded in the fuselage of the spacecraft are detonated and carry the capsule away with them. The capsule would then land with their own parachutes.
These disaster recovery engines, known as SuperDracos, have recently given SpaceX cause for concern. In April, a Crew Dragon test capsule exploded after the engines had been detonated several times in routine tests. SpaceX immediately formed a team to find out what happened. Months later, investigations revealed that a leaking valve had resulted in some of the propellant passing from the engines to another system, triggering a chain reaction that destroyed the capsule. SpaceX assured the public to redesign the system and replace the valves in the future.
Today's engine test completes SpaceX's investigation into the accident, and the company can drive the development of Crew Dragon. The company has been working on this spacecraft for years as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, an initiative to fly NASA astronauts on US-made commercial vehicles. Both SpaceX and rival Boeing have worked on separate capsules to transport these astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Companies need to run certain test milestones before people can drive on the capsules. Today's burning means the SpaceX is ready for its next big test. The company will soon be testing the emergency stop motors during the flight. So far, SpaceX has only tested the system on site. In 2015, the company carried out a so-called pad-abort test in which the SuperDraco engines were detonated on a crew dragon sitting alone on a launch pad. The test was a success and the engines carried the Crew Dragon from the launch pad to the sea where the vehicle splashed down with parachutes.
Now SpaceX wants to see if the SuperDracos can do the same thing as an actual rocket. At some point in the future, SpaceX plans to launch one of its used Falcon 9s in Cape Canaveral, Florida with a crew capsule by Crew Dragon. Shortly after takeoff, the spacecraft emergency stop system is activated and attempts to remove the vehicle from its rocket travel.
Once completed, SpaceX will complete most of the commercial crew program test flight milestones. The company sent an unsrewed crew kite to the ISS back in March, demonstrating that the capsule successfully docked at the station and then returned to Earth via parachutes. The company recently announced that it has also completed 13 successful rounds with parachute tests. NASA had asked SpaceX to conduct more parachute tests before the first crews were to fly on the Crew Dragon, as the company's parachutes had been difficult to deliver.
The SpaceX team has completed 13 successful tests as a result of upgraded Mark 3 parachutes for Crew Dragon. The latest test has shown that the parachute system is able to land the spacecraft safely in the unlikely event that one of the four main parachutes fails. pic.twitter.com/VJzDeS8UAG
– SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 3, 2019
SpaceX's final major test will be the company's first manned mission to send two NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will travel to the ISS for a short stay before returning to Earth. As these two astronauts fly safely, SpaceX may be able to send crews to the ISS on a regular basis.
It is possible that SpaceX will fly in the first half of 2020, but any unforeseen issues can lead to further shifts. And the commercial crew program had enough delays. The first flights with crew were originally scheduled to take place in 2017, but not yet.
"If something turns up that we did not know, it could take a while," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently said during a visit to SpaceX headquarters. "Whether we do it in the first half of next year, it's less relevant than the fact that we can do it."