SpaceX Commercial Crew Will Have Launch Escape Route

SpaceX has been testing a launch abort system that would save the lives of the crew on board a manned version of its Dragon capsule in the event of a launch failure.

In the video of the fireball that engulfed SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket Sunday, a little capsule, still intact, can be seen falling through the sky, a poignant reminder that rocket explosions can be survivable.

That's an important and painful lesson NASA learned following the loss of two space shuttles and 14 astronauts, one that it is incorporating into the next generation of human spaceship currently under development.

The Dragon capsule that flew aboard the ill-fated Falcon rocket Sunday is nearly the same as one SpaceX is designing to fly people. Crew Dragon, however, will have an escape system that will enable the capsule to fly away from an exploding rocket and parachute to safety.

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Last month, SpaceX demonstrated how the system would work in an emergency on the launch pad. During the test, which lasted less than two minutes, a Dragon capsule fired its eight engines to catapult itself off a simulated Falcon 9 rocket and climb into the sky over the Atlantic Ocean at a peak speed of 345 mph.

A more ambitious test, slated for next year, will take place aboard an actual Falcon rocket, at about the same point in the flight as when Sunday's accident occurred.

The Falcon 9 blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 10:21 a.m. EDT on a mission to deliver a cargo ship to the International Space Station for NASA.

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The rocket had passed the moment of maximum aerodynamic force -- referred to as "Max-Q" -- when ground controllers lost contact with the booster. It exploded about 2 minutes, 20 seconds after liftoff, creating a shower of debris that rained down into the ocean, northeast of SpaceX's Cape Canaveral, Florida, launch site.

Ground controllers received some signals from Dragon after the rocket broke apart, indicating it survived the explosion somewhat intact, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told reporters after the accident.

During the in-flight abort test, SpaceX plans to simulate a mid-air accident, prompting the Dragon capsule to automatically fire its eight Draco engines, positioned around the capsule's circumference, and fly away.

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Boeing, which is building a second space taxi for NASA, plans a similar test in 2017 of its CST-100 abort system.

Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said Sunday's accident should not impact NASA's ongoing Commercial Crew program, which is aimed at breaking Russia's monopoly on space station crew ferry flights before the end of 2017.

"My concerns are only the natural knee-jerk reaction by some. The philosophy of having two developers is a wise one," Stallmer wrote in an email to Discovery News.

SpaceX is focusing on a problem with the Falcon rocket's upper-stage engine as the likely cause of Sunday's accident.

Shotwell said expects the Falcon to be grounded for several months while an investigation is underway.

Sunday's anomaly can be seen here in a NASA TV launch video:

click to play video

On May 6, 2015, SpaceX carried out its first tests on a launch abort system that would be used on the manned version of its Dragon vehicle to save astronauts from a launch anomaly.

During the second NASA-contracted SpaceX Dragon cargo run to the International Space Station (ISS) Sunday morning (March 3, 2013), Canadian astronaut, soon-to-be ISS commander and hugely popular orbital Twitter user Chris Hadfield kept tabs on the Dragon berthing. Here are the stunning views he captured during the successful capture. Here, the Dragon capsule is grappled by the station's robotic arm -- an instrument designed and built by MDA Space Missions for the Canadian Space Agency. "Tonight's Finale: A Dragon, snared and tamed by Canadarm2. Saint George ringing in a new era in the silence of space," Hadfield tweeted. Here are some more views shared by Hadfield with the world via his Twitter account, @Cmdr_Hadfield.

The Canadarm2 awaits the arrival of the Dragon capsule. The robotic arm is the primary component of the space station's Mobile Servicing System (MSS) that was installed in 2001. The Canadarm2 provides support to astronauts on board the station -- berthing spacecraft, providing maintenance services and moving equipment around the station's exterior. "Canadarm2, proud builder of the International Space Station, in preparation for the successful grabbing of a Dragon," tweeted Hadfield.

"Dragon comes into view - first sight this morning, sneaking up on us from behind the Progress solar array," tweeted Hadfield, referring to one of the solar panels of the docked Russian Progress cargo vehicle.

"Self-portrait in the Cupola with rising Dragon below, Africa behind."

As the Dragon approached the space station, there were plenty of photo ops for the astronauts. "The Dragon spaceship high over Mount Etna - both spitting fire," said Hadfield as the spacecraft passed over the east coast of Sicily, Italy.

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft over the Sahara Desert before space station berthing on March 3, 2013.

"Like a Praying Mantis, Canadarm2 poised to reach out and grab Dragon."

"Success! Canadarm2 holds Dragon by the nose, to drag it up and hook it on to a Station hatch," said Hadfield via his Twitter account when the Dragon was snared at 5:31 am EST Sunday morning.

"Happy crewmember - Dragon securely snared by Canadarm2, ready to be lifted around, hooked into place, and opened up."