SpaceX, NASA gear up for in-flight abort demonstration

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NASA and SpaceX are preparing to launch the final, major test before astronauts fly aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

The test, known as in-flight abort, will demonstrate the spacecraft’s escape capabilities — showing that the crew system can protect astronauts even in the unlikely event of an emergency during launch. The uncrewed flight test is targeted for 8 a.m., EST, Jan. 18, at the start of a four-hour test window, from Launch Complex 39A in Florida.

SpaceX performed a full-duration static test Saturday, Jan. 11, of the Falcon 9 and completed a static fire of the Crew Dragon on Nov. 13, setting the stage for the critical flight test. 

Prior to launch, SpaceX and NASA teams will practice launch day end-to-end operations with NASA astronauts, including final spacecraft inspections and side hatch closeout. Additionally, SpaceX and NASA flight controllers along with support teams will be staged as they will for future Crew Dragon missions, helping the integrated launch team gain additional experience beyond existing simulations and training events.

The uncrewed in-flight abort demonstration is targeted for 8 a.m., EST, Jan. 18, from Launch Complex 39A in Florida. There is a four-hour test window. (SpaceX photograph)

After liftoff, Falcon 9’s ascent will follow a trajectory that will mimic a Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station matching the physical environments the rocket and spacecraft will encounter during a normal ascent.

For this test, SpaceX will configure Crew Dragon to intentionally trigger a launch escape prior to 1 min, 30 seconds into flight to demonstrate Crew Dragon’s capability to safely separate from the Falcon 9 rocket in the unlikely event of an in-flight emergency. Once the launch escape sequence begins, Falcon 9’s first stage Merlin engines will shut down and Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco thrusters will begin their firing sequence. The launch vehicle and spacecraft will separate, and Crew Dragon’s SuperDracos will burn to completion.

After Crew Dragon’s SuperDracos shutdown, the spacecraft will passively coast to apogee, the highest point in its arc. Near apogee, Crew Dragon’s trunk will separate and the smaller Draco thrusters will re-orient the spacecraft for reentry and parachute deploy. At the appropriate conditions, Dragon’s drogue and main parachutes will sequence to provide for a soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean near SpaceX Dragon recovery teams.

Following Crew Dragon’s separation, Falcon 9 is expected to aerodynamically break up offshore over the Atlantic Ocean. Expected breakup time will vary based upon a number of factors, including day of launch winds and expected minor variations in vehicle attitudes and positions, but could occur shortly after separation or later upon reentry from the upper atmosphere. In either scenario, a dedicated team of SpaceX Falcon 9 recovery personnel will be staged and ready to begin recovering debris immediately after breakup.

As part of the Dragon recovery operation, Air Force Detachment-3 personnel will work with the SpaceX recovery team to observe Crew Dragon and practice their initial approach to the spacecraft in the open ocean, mimicking an actual rescue operation before the SpaceX team recovers Crew Dragon for return to Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX’s uncrewed in-flight abort demonstration test of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities is designed to provide valuable data toward NASA certifying SpaceX’s crew transportation system for carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

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