SpaceX's Crew Dragon gets fired up ahead of its biggest test so far

It's getting hot.

The Dragon V2 or Crew Dragon.

SpaceX has been putting the Crew Dragon through its paces, ahead of a planned test to see whether the capsule is capable of carrying humans safely.

On Thursday, the company shared video footage on Twitter of the capsule’s upgraded launch escape system. The setup, captured in fiery detail, is key for the Crew Dragon to pass perhaps its most intense challenge yet — an in-flight abort test, which will demonstrate that the capsule can move away from its rocket during a launch in case of emergency.

On Thursday, CNBC claimed the company could conduct a static test fire next week, paving the way for the full test. The report comes as SpaceX doubles down on getting the capsule ready for launch.

“For what it’s worth, the SpaceX schedule, which I’ve just reviewed in depth, shows Falcon & Dragon at the Cape & all testing done in ~10 weeks,” Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, wrote on Twitter on October 8.

The company’s capsule is playing a key role in the NASA Commercial Crew program, a bid to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. After the space shuttle program was axed in 2011, NASA started using Russian Soyuz rockets, lifting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to complete the journey. Each seat costs around $80 million.

SpaceX, along with Boeing, is working to develop a capsule that can send humans to the station. Following the company’s successful launch of the “Demo-1” mission in March 2019, where it sent up and returned cargo, the company is nor preparing for its in-flight abort test. Assuming a successful test, SpaceX’s next mission will be to send the first humans up with the capsule in a “Demo-2” launch.

“Altogether we are conducting hundreds of tests to verify the system’s advanced capabilities to carry astronauts to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency,” the company wrote.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon undergoes a test firing.
Burn, baby, burn!

SpaceX Crew Dragon: how the in-flight abort test is coming together

When a rocket lifts off with a capsule from the launch pad, any number of factors can spark an emergency. In those high-pressure, high-speed moments, NASA needs to know that its crew can safely escape from the rocket.

The Crew Dragon has been designed to meet this test. The test will take place at max Q, also known as maximum aerodynamic pressure. This is a moment, around one minute after launch, where the speed and air density are so strong that an abort would be more difficult than at any other point.

During the test, SpaceX will send a command to the capsule and Falcon 9 rocket carrying the capsule. The rocket will start to shut down, and the capsule will engage its SuperDraco thrusters. These thrusters can move half a mile in 7.5 seconds, or the equivalent of a velocity of 436 mph. In September SpaceX claimed the thrusters had undergone 700 tests.

When will it take place? CNBC has claimed that a static test fire could take place as early as November 2 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The test is expected to take place at Landing Zone 1, the same place where a static test fire in April led to a severe anomaly.

If the fire is successful, a full abort test could soon follow.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon.

From there, the company would be expected to host a “Demo-2” crewed mission. Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have been chosen to wear the SpaceX suits and embark on the company’s first-ever manned mission. The goal will be to travel to the International Space Station and stay for less than a month, where the crew will conduct tests to determine whether the capsule is capable of hosting a voyage lasting 210 days. They will then undock and splash down off the Atlantic Coast.

As the big tests arrive, tensions are seemingly running high. SpaceX’s unveiling of the Mars-bound Starship was met with a frosty reception from NASA’s Jim Bridenstine, who noted that the Commercial Crew project is “years behind schedule.” Musk noted at the Starship unveiling that the rocket project only took around five percent of resources, with the rest dedicated to more pressing issues like the Crew Dragon.

Media via SpaceX, SpaceX/Twitter