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Last Night’s Falcon 9 Will Fly One More Time, Exploding Mid-Air in Crew Dragon Abort Test

A SpaceX Crew Dragon test article launches on a Pad Abort Test from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station SLC-40, Florida. Photo Credit: John Studwell / AmericaSpace

The Falcon 9 rocket which launched last night’s SpaceX mission performed beautifully on its third flight. delivering Indonesia’s PSN-6 satellite “Nusantara Satu” to orbit along with a U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) microsat and – most notably – deploying a moonlander developed by Israel’s SpaceIL organization (read our full story HERE).

It previously launched ten Iridium NEXT global mobile communications satellites in July 2018, and the heavyweight SAOCOM-1A Earth-observation payload for Argentina last October, but its next and final mission will see its destruction.

The Falcon’s plume lit by the rising moon over Space Launch Complex-40, just minutes after launch. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

Last night’s launch was quite a sight under a beautifully clear sky (shame SpaceX missed the moonrise by only a few minutes), and having made a successful landing, SpaceX’s leader Elon Musk has confirmed on Twitter what the rocket’s final responsibility will be.

Blowing up mid-air, on purpose.

The cool factor is off the charts (just ask any photographer), but the reason behind the mission is of course life and death.

When astronauts begin launching to space aboard Crew Dragons and Falcon 9s, they will need an abort capability, not only to quickly escape an incident on the launch pad, but to escape an exploding rocket mid-air during launch and ascent too.

Such a need is absolutely critical, and required by NASA, and was proven why in a scary incident a few months ago when the crew of Soyuz MS-10 experienced a failure with their rocket, forcing them into a dangerous high-G ballistic descent back to Earth.

Fortunately they survived, but things easily could have turned out the opposite. Even a proven system like Soyuz can’t escape the inevitable. Things will go wrong, and the upcoming Crew Dragon Ascent Abort Test will ensure those crews too, can safely escape an in-flight emergency.

Additionally, SpaceX has lost two missions to failing rockets in recent years; one on the launch pad (AMOS-6) and one on launch – and the one during launch was a Cargo Dragon mission for NASA (CRS-7). And while both NASA and SpaceX state the issues which caused those accidents are resolved, it does not change the fact that those events are exactly why an abort capability is needed for crews to begin with.

It’s important to note too, that SpaceX insists that if a crew WAS onboard, the Dragon would have aborted them safely.

A Falcon 9 rocket exploding on launch of CRS-7 for NASA. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

So the rocket (designated B1048) will be employed a fourth and final time – launching Crew Dragon, then blowing to pieces under supersonic forces off the coast of Cape Canaveral to prove the spacecraft & crew can escape safely.

The Ascent Abort flight test is currently tracking towards launch no earlier than April, according to Musk.

The company already conducted a Pad Abort Test in 2015, which launched from SLC-40 off a specially made truss to simulate the spacecraft atop a Falcon-9 rocket. The 21,000-lb prototype took flight quickly under 120,000 lbs of axial thrust from its eight SuperDraco engines, ascending 3,500 ft in six seconds before jettisoning its trunk and deploying a pair of drogue chutes, followed by a trio of main parachutes and splashdown less than a mile offshore.

A mockup SpaceX Crew Dragon takes flight for the company Pad Abort Test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 6, 2015. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

But first, SpaceX needs to launch the highly anticipated first uncrewed orbital flight test of Crew Dragon, designated ‘Demo-1’ (DM-1), which is currently scheduled to launch no-earlier-than March 2 from Kennedy Space Center pad 39A. Because the same Crew Dragon will be used to conduct the Ascent Abort Test off the same launch pad.

“Testing the actual flight design always results in higher fidelity data and ultimately reduces risk for later crew flights,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of the NASA’s human spaceflight programs. “This supports a philosophy of testing as you fly, which our experience has shown to be a good strategy for development and complements well the earlier system information gained from the pad abort test.”


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