With Brilliant Pad Abort Test, SpaceX Sets the Stage for American Space Launch Renaissance

4 Frames of Pad Abort Test : Image Credit NASA

SpaceX took a major step towards regaining U.S. domestic crew launch capability today with a successful Pad Abort Test of its Commercial Crew Dragon capsule.

The test widow was originally scheduled to open at 7:00 AM EDT, but was subsequently moved back two hours to begin at 9:00 AM. Weather conditions were heavy overcast, with a tropical low just offshore.

With the Dragon’s cabin lights glowing warmly and clearly visible against the grey skies, the 20 foot tall Dragon and Trunk marked a radically different vision than the spindly Falcon 9 rocket which normally sits atop the flame trench at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40.

The results however, were very much the same; a flawless liftoff and what initially at least, appeared to be a near perfect flight. Let this be said however, it is indeed a wild ride.

Driven away from the pad by the 8 side mounted SuperDraco engines, each generating 15,000 lbs. of thrust, the Dragon accelerated for approximately 5.5 seconds. Several seconds after thrust terminated, with the Dragon flying at trajectory which was approaching horizontal, the trunk detached, with its clamp arm now extended, appearing to serve as very effective aerobrake.

Freed of the trunk’s mass and stabilizing aspects, the Dragon then began a rapid 180 degree pitchover maneuver which found saw the heatshield become the leading edge and placed the nose mounted rocket powered drogue parachutes in position to fire. And fire they did, streaming out behind the now slowing craft, causing it to reverse its previous tumble and gradually assume a conventional position beneath the three orange and white main parachutes as they deployed.

Coming to a gentle splashdown in the five foot Atlantic surf just offshore, the lightly laden test Dragon appeared to ride a little higher on the ocean’s surface than its cargo version with a distinctive bobbing motion.  As the broadcast closed, one of two recovery craft came into the picture, one which also included an uncrewed barge waiting slightly further out to sea.

After recovery, the Dragon will be trucked back to SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas rocket development facility for extensive examination. No word was given on whether an effort would be made to recovery the remains of the trunk.

With 270 sensors, as well as a crash test dummy not named ”Buster” onboard,  it will clearly take some time to come to a full analysis regarding today’s Pad Abort Test, and there is still an in-flight abort test to come, but it is not too soon to draw some basic conclusions.

Despite the dire warnings of Congressional critics, a number of astronauts as well as vendors who lost their contracts with the cancellation of Project Constellation and the Ares I, NASA’s Commercial Crew program now has solid evidence that it is producing a crew transport system offering unparalleled safety.  With today’s demonstration, SpaceX has now conducted three successful atmospheric recovery tests of the Dragon capsule, as well as seven returns from orbit, with an 8th pending.

As for the Falcon 9 booster which will lift the Dragon to orbit, with 17 successful flights to its record, the one remaining question mark, that of launch scrubs, could be taken as a virtue. Its fault monitoring system is both extremely extensive, as well as very tightly constrained. With 9 first stage engines, it has to be, but in offering engine out capability throughout first stage flight, it is a combination which bodes very well for crewed launches.

Today’s test was more than a glimpse of the immediate future however. For most of the rest of this year, the company will no doubt focus its efforts on the next hurdle, the Vandenberg, Ca. based in flight abort test. But, with a successful demonstration of the SuperDraco’s full capacity now in the record books, the stage is also set for SpaceX to begin testing those engines in a range of other scenarios, and possibilities are nearly overwhelming. Whether it is powered landings for future crewed Dragons here on Earth, or equally compelling potential of unmanned entry descent and landing of robotic Dragons on the surface of Mars, the future is wide open, and it is bright indeed.

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