SpaceX completes a key test of its Dragon capsule, paving the way for its first human spaceflight

Source: Christian Davenport, Washington Post

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Elon Musk’s SpaceX moved Sunday to within months of restoring NASA’s ability to launch people into space, successfully completing a key test of the emergency abort system of the spacecraft it is developing to fly NASA’s astronauts.

NASA has been unable to send humans to space since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, but with SpaceX’s test, the agency said it might be sometime this spring when astronauts again would be lifting off from the same historic stretch of coastline here that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon.
Such an outcome would augur a new era of space exploration, one driven as much by private industry as NASA. Sunday’s successful test marked the culmination of years of work by SpaceX, which Musk founded in 2002 with the goal of flying humans routinely out of the atmosphere.

In a press conference after the mission, Musk said he was “super fired up” and said the mission was a significant and “surreal” milestone.

“I can’t believe we’ve gotten this far,” he said. “It’s just going to be wonderful to get astronauts back into orbit from American soil after almost a decade of not being able to do so. I think that’s super exciting.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine praised the company, and the progress it has made, but said the coming weeks and months would be crucial.

“Make no mistake there’s a lot left to do,” he said, noting there were significant parachute tests yet to come and that the teams still needed to review the data from Sunday’s so-called in-flight abort test.

Sunday’s test began shortly after a Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from a launch site here at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning amid concerns that heavy winds and incoming clouds would scrub the mission. But nearly 90 seconds after the booster blasted off, the engines of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft ignited, shooting the capsule off like a champagne cork at more than twice the speed of sound, while the booster came apart midflight in a fiery spectacle miles above the Florida Space Coast.

The capsule landed softly in the Atlantic Ocean nine minutes after liftoff, floating down under a quartet of parachutes, completing a test designed to show that the astronauts would be flown to safety if there ever were a problem with the rocket.

“It looks like a great test,” SpaceX’s John Insprucker said during the live broadcast, as cheering broke out at SpaceX headquarters in California.

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop spacecraft capable of flying humans to space station, a bold bet by the agency to outsource human spaceflight to the private sector. Since then, both companies’ progress has been hampered by technical problems and funding issues that have delayed the first flights with crews by years. And the agency has been forced to continue to rely on Russia for rides to the space station at a cost of as much as $84 million a seat.

Last spring, a Dragon capsule exploded during a test of its abort engines. The company blamed a faulty valve that caused a propellant leak. It has also struggled with its parachutes, but those seemed to work well Sunday.

Boeing also has had problems with its Starliner spacecraft. During a test of its abort system last year, one of its three main parachutes failed to deploy. And a test of its Starliner capsule in December was cut short when a software problem prevented the spacecraft from docking with the space station as intended.

Sunday’s test was the major hurdle SpaceX needed to pass before being allowed to fly NASA’s astronauts in what’s known as the Commercial Crew Program. The company hopes to fly its first mission with astronauts within a few months, but first it needs to analyze the data from the mission and go through safety checks.
It’s unclear when Boeing might fly its first mission with crews. The company is still investigating what caused its onboard computer to be 11 hours off, a problem that prevented its engines from firing. NASA has said it is looking into whether it should force the company to fly another test mission without crews before allowing astronauts on board.

In a recent blog post, Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said that even though docking with the space station is part of Boeing’s contract, that requirement could be waived.

“Although docking was planned, it may not have to be accomplished prior to the crew demonstration,” he wrote. “Boeing would need NASA’s approval to proceed with a test with astronauts on board.”

Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said during a briefing last week that SpaceX still has a few tests of its parachute system to complete. If they go well, she said, the company could conceivably launch its first mission with astronauts in March.

In the press briefing Sunday, Musk said that the first flight would actually be a bit later, but sometime in the second quarter of this year.

“To be back in the saddle again, and to be launching frequently again is something that matters to America and to people world-wide,” Musk said.

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