SpaceX on Wednesday successfully demonstrated its Crew Dragon spacecraft abort system system in a test from Cape Canaveral over the Atlantic Ocean.
In completing that test without fail, the company proved to NASA – and the world – its ability to transport astronauts to safety should an emergency occur on the launch pad.
That’s a huge first step for SpaceX in achieving NASA certification of the Crew Dragon spacecraft for missions to the International Space Station, said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
"This is a critical step toward ensuring crew safety for government and commercial endeavors in low-Earth orbit," Lueders said.
As the government focuses more on deep-space missions, it is turning over less risky functions like lower Earth orbit – where the ISS orbits – to private enterprise.
That’s why last fall NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to transport crews to and from the ISS.
SpaceX through its cargo missions to ISS already has proven its ability to operate spacecraft in lower Earth Orbit. The trick in making the crew missions by 2017 is in proving it can safely transport humans.
And that’s a challenge in such a young industry like commercial space, an industry that has only existed for a decade.
The crash last year of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in which one pilot died is a stark reminder of the difficulty in safely developing a new industry.
“SpaceX was founded with the goal of carrying people to space, and today’s pad abort test represented an important milestone in that effort,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and COO. “Our partnership with NASA has been essential for developing Crew Dragon, a spacecraft that we believe will be the safest ever flown. Today’s successful test will provide critical data as we continue toward crewed flights in 2017.”
During the two-minute test, Crew Dragon carried a dummy outfitted with sensors to gather data. That test data will allow SpaceX to refine its aerodynamic and performance models and its design, NASA said.
Future flight testing of Crew Dragon will involve a high-altitude abort test and an uncrewed mission to the ISS.