High above Cape Canaveral, Florida, two bodies whizz heavenward. Their wild nine-minute flight ends with an explosion and a falling capsule. But this is no tragedy. The bodies are mannequins. And the explosion was all part of a plan to launch astronauts safely into space from America.
NASA hasn’t launched astronauts from the United States since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. Ever since, the government’s space program has had to shell out millions of dollars to hitch a Russian rocket ride. Now NASA is teaming up with private aerospace companies like SpaceX and Boeing to re-ignite the space program.
Crew Dragon is SpaceX’s “next-generation spacecraft.” According to the website, Crew Dragon will “carry humans to the International Space Station and other destinations.”
Before that can happen, companies must run many tests—including those that help determine what to do when things go wrong. January’s test involved aborting (cancelling) a launch while allowing the capsule’s most valuable cargo—its occupants—to escape.
The importance of escape became clear in 2017. Two astronauts—one an American and the other a Russian—were aboard during a failed launch from Kazakhstan. (See “Russian Rocket Failure Was Assembly Error.”) The crew experienced up to seven times the force of gravity during the abort but walked away from the accident.
Here’s what happened in January’s test: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasted off as normal. Just over a minute into its flight, the Crew Dragon capsule shot off the top. Powerful thrusters propelled it up, up, and away, just as the rocket’s engines shut down. Then the booster part of the rocket exploded. Crew Dragon, with its dummy crew, kept climbing for 15 miles—well out of harm’s way. The capsule then parachuted into the ocean where a recovery ship snagged it.
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken paid close attention to the launch-abort test. The next Crew Dragon could take them to the International Space Station as early as April.
Hurley calls the experiment “a confidence builder,” adding, “if you ever got into that situation, that Dragon can get us away from the booster quickly.”
Elon Musk is SpaceX’s flamboyant founder and chief executive. “I’m super fired-up,” he says. “It’s just going to be wonderful to get astronauts back into orbit from American soil after almost a decade.”
Musk says the Dragon’s escape system should work even if the capsule is still attached when the rocket erupts. He says it might look like “something out of Star Wars” with the capsule flying right out of a fireball.
He quickly adds, “Obviously we want to avoid doing that.”