Image Credit: SpaceX
NASA and SpaceX held a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center this morning to preview next week’s Pad Abort Test for the Commercial Crew Dragon capsule. SpaceX was represented by V.P. of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann, and NASA by SpaceX Commercial Crew parter manager John Cowart. The test, which had been scheduled for Tuesday, has now been moved to Wednesday, May 6th, with a “launch” window which will begin at 7:00 AM EDT.
With no Space Station to catch, nor even a specific GTO orbit to reach, SpaceX has the luxury of a nearly a full day to get everything in place for a test which will be nearly over before the sound of all 8 side mounted SuperDraco engines alerts spectators that the event has begun.
Taking place at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40, the Dragon capsule, with attached trunk, will be erected on a stand sitting over the flame trench which ordinarily bears the brunt of the 1.3 million pounds of thrust generated by the Falcon 9. Upon ignition, the 8 SuperDraco engines will burn for six seconds, driving the assembly in an upward canted to the East and an intended destination 6,000 ft. away. In order to prevent a collision, SpaceX is in the process of removing the network of wires which connect the four lighting towers which surround SLC-40.
As soon as propulsion ceases, the Dragon’s trunk, which is equipped with four aerodynamic fins, will fall away, as the capsule continues to coast to an estimated apogee of 4,500 ft. At that point, two drogue parachutes, each equipped with two reefing stages will deploy, followed by the triple reefed main parachutes. If all goes well, the heavily instrumented capsule will be float to a point in the Atlantic Ocean only 3,000 feet offshore, where it will be quickly recovered by a small armada of waiting vessels.
While there will not be any crew onboard, the Dragon does have a sole occupant, a crash test dummy named “Buster,” strapped into a seat similar to what astronauts will eventually use. Like the capsule itself, Buster will be instrumented and provide useful data on what a possible abort environment my might be like for future crews should the occasion ever arise. SpaceX estimated the acceleration force will be a manageable 4-4.5 G’s for a spacecraft which will accelerate from zero to 300 knots in six second. “Faster even” joked Koenigsmann, “than a Tesla.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the test, which the panel thought might constitute a first for the space coast (Apollo abort tests were performed at Wallops) is the fact that it will be a definite first for the hypergolic fueled SuperDraco. SpaceX has thus far only fired two at any given time, and the prospect of all 8, which are arranged in four side mounted pods, is giving an added air of excitement to what is in some ways the first tangible element of a crew flight program which NASA and SpaceX have been working on for the last four years.
Wednesday’s test will be one of two remaining milestones selected by SpaceX under the CCiCap phase of the Commercial Crew program. The other milestone is an in-flight abort test of the Dragon capsule, which will take place at Vandenberg, California later this year or early next year. The timing of that test will be heavily influenced by the data gathered from the Pad Abort Test. Both Cowart and Koenigsmann repeatedly stressed the notion that the entire point of testing is to find out what you don’t know, and both suggested that the test could be a considered a success even if certain elements are not successful. In case some things do not go as planned, SpaceX will have the opportunity to make corrections and try again as part of the in-flight abort test.
NASA television coverage of the Pad Abort Test is set to begin at 6:45 AM on Wednesday May 6th and in case you miss it, there should be no lack of images later in the day. Koenigsmann was eager to point out that as part of the instrumentation recording every aspect of the Dragon’s brief flight, there will be a number of cameras which will offer some “cool views.”