Sunday, January 19th, 2020 saw SpaceX complete a major test that should help bring their Crew Dragon vehicle much closer to the point where it can commence carrying crews to / from the the International Space Station (ISS).
The test, referred to as a in-flight abort (IFA) test saw an uncrewed Crew Dragon vehicle launched from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Centre atop a Falcon 9 rocket in what was primarily a test of the vehicle’s launch abort system, is designed to push the capsule and its crew clear of a malfunctioning launch vehicle. However, the flight also served as an opportunity to test a further update to the vehicle’s descent parachute system (marking the first time this particular type of parachute had been used on a flight) and for SpaceX to further refine its crew recovery procedures for meeting returning Crew Dragon vehicles.
All the early indicators from the test are that everything ran as expected. Following lift-off and ascent, and at 84 seconds into the flight and an altitude of around 19 km, the first stage engine cut-off triggered the simulated malfunction, causing the abort system to release the clamps attaching the Crew Dragon to the dummy upper stage of the Falcon 9, the SuperDraco engines simultaneously firing, each one generating some 16,000 lbs of thrust. These immediately powered the Crew Dragon clear of the booster, travelling at a speed of over Mach 2, just as they would when trying to get a crew away from a malfunctioning rocket during an operational launch.
With the capsule detached, the Falcon 9 continued its own ballistic flight upwards, but the open end of dummy upper stage effectively functioned like a large, open-mouthed air brake, putting huge stresses on the vehicle. These caused the booster to break up, the remaining fuel on-board igniting in an explosion the test team had been expecting.
The SuperDraco motors fired for just 10 seconds. However, this was more than enough to put the craft on its own ballistic trajectory, allowing it to reach a peak altitude of around 40 km three minutes into the flight. Shortly ahead of reaching that point, the service module – referred to as the trunk, and designed to provide power and life support to the vehicle – was jettisoned. Then as the capsule reached the zenith of its flight, the smaller Draco manoeuvring motors fired, stabilising it as it started its descent back towards Earth, enabling the drogue parachutes to deploy.
This pair of small parachutes allowed the vehicle to properly orient itself and act as a trigger for the release of the four main parachutes – as the drogues are jettisoned, they pulled clear a hatch covering the main parachute bay, just below the docking port that forms the nose of the Crew Dragon, allowing them to deploy, slowing the craft and bringing it down to a safe splashdown.
For crew recovery operations, SpaceX make use of two specially-equipped ships, GO Searcher and Go Navigator. Originally leased by the company from Guice Offshore (hence the GO in the name) for use in the recovery of Falcon Payload fairings, Go Searcher was extensively refitted in 2018 to manage recovery operations for Crew Dragon, gaining a new radar system for tracking incoming Crew Dragon vehicles, a new crew recovery area and medical facility for post-flight check-ups of returning crew, and an upper deck helipad for emergency medivac. Go Navigator completed a similar refit in 2019.
Ahead of the test flight, GO Searcher departed SpaceX’s facilities at Port Canaveral, and took up a loitering position on the edge of the expected splashdown zone some 30 km off the coast of Florida. Following splashdown, teams aboard rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs) raced to the capsule to start the work of safing the craft and securing it ready for recovery. During normal flight recovery work, the recovery vessel and its crew will additionally have the services of Air Force Detachment-3 to call on, an emergency team of divers and personnel trained for astronaut recovery operations. For this flight, once the capsule has been recovered the the GO Searcher’s stern deck, it will be returned to SpaceX’s facilities along with the recovered parachutes for study.
While the initial response ot the flight has been positive, post-flight review is expected to take several weeks, and NASA has pointed out that there are still a number of additional tests that need to be completed ahead of crewed flights.
There are some additional system-level tests of the spacecraft’s upgraded parachutes still needed to be completed, as well as other reviews of the spacecraft. [But] stepping through that [abort test] together and making sure that we’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed the t’s before our crew demonstration flight is very, very, important We’ve got work to do, but, honestly, getting this test behind us is a huge milestone.
– NASA Commercial Crew Programme manager, Kathy Lueders
As such, no date has been confirmed for the first crewed flight – officially called Demo-2, and which will see a 2-man crew fly a Crew Dragon to the ISS, where it will remains for approximately two weeks before they return to Earth. However, should the post-flight IFA test analysis prove positive, speculation is the Demo-2 flight could be staged as early as March, with “operational” flights starting later in 2020. In the meantime, the test flight can be followed in the video below, which has a start time set to just before the Falcon 9 ignites its main engine.