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SpaceX, NASA prep for Crew Dragon abort test to open door for astronaut flights

This is one of an extensive series of still photos documenting the arrival and ultimate capture and berthing of the SpaceX CRS-3 Dragon at the International Space Station, as photographed by the Expedition 39 crew members onboard the orbital outpost. The spacecraft was captured by the space station and successfully berthed, following the April 20, 2014 arrival. (NASA/Released)

SpaceX is ready to check off the last major hurdle before sending astronauts back to space from U.S. soil.

The Crew Dragon in-flight abort test is set to launch from Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, to demonstrate the ability of the capsule to safely propel itself from a Falcon 9 rocket after liftoff in the event of an emergency.

The uncrewed demonstration is aiming to launch at 8 a.m. from KSC’s Launch Complex 39A with a four-hour launch window.

The Falcon 8 ran through a static test last Saturday while the Crew Dragon had a static fire last November in preparation for this weekend’s launch.

The plan is for the Falcon 9 to launch and then commence the Crew Dragon separation before 90 seconds into the flight, which will simulate liftoff conditions if were actually headed to the International Space Station.

The abort sequence features the Falcon 9 first stage engine shutting down while what SpaceX calls the SuperDraco thrusters on the Crew Dragon to shoot the capsule away from the rocket to safety.

It continues up and away farther out over the Atlantic Ocean, shuts down its engines, jettisons the bottom portion of the capsule, uses smaller engines to reorient it for safe descent, and then heads back down to Earth.

Parachutes will then deploy before Crew Dragon splashes down into the Atlantic. For the test, SpaceX recovery ships will head to the landing site with Air Force personnel set to mimic an actual rescue mission before the capsule is loaded for return to Cape Canaveral.

The Falcon 9 rocket being used for the test is planned to break up over the Atlantic after the abort test firing, so there will be no controlled re-entry and landing. SpaceX recovery crews are set to pick up its pieces after launch.

Leading up to Saturday’s launch, NASA teams will practice a full day simulation of launch including spacecraft inspections and side hatch closeout. For launch day, NASA and SpaceX flight controllers will run it as if it were an actual mission to the space station.

Upon recovery, Crew Dragon will return to Cape Canaveral for followup inspections. SpaceX already flew a successful uncrewed test mission to the space station with a different Crew Dragon in March 2019, but faced delays to the in-flight abort test because of an explosion in April on the ground during a test of that capsule’s abort engines.

If inspections to Crew Dragon after this abort test flight prove prove positive, SpaceX will gear up for its second demonstration flight to the International Space Station, this one with astronauts, later this year.

If NASA certifies Crew Dragon after that flight, the company will begin flying astronauts back to the ISS on resupply missions as part of a six-flight Commercial Crew contract. SpaceX and Boeing with its Starliner capsule that will fly on Atlas V rockets are the two companies set to take over flights to the ISS from Florida.

Boeing attempted its first uncrewed flight to the ISS in December, but a trajectory issue on launch cause the Starliner to not be able to make it to the station, although it did make it into orbit and return to Earth safely.

NASA astronauts have not flown to the ISS from the U.S. since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. They currently have to hitch rides to and from the ISS on flights aboard Soyuz spacecraft from Kazakhstan.


© 2020 The Orlando Sentinel