Saturday, May 2, 2015

Pad Abort Test a Unique Evaluation Opportunity

Hans Koenigsmann, left, vice president of Mission Assurance for SpaceX, and Jon Cowart, partner manager for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, discuss the upcoming pad abort test for the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Credits: NASA/Kim Shiflett

SpaceX and NASA teams will gain important insight into how the Crew Dragon spacecraft and its abort system perform during a test slated for May 6, engineers said Friday. Next week's flight test is to see a Crew Dragon and trunk – together about 20 feet tall - fly on the power of eight SuperDraco engines from a platform at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The test will not have crew members aboard the spacecraft, but will simulate an emergency escape from the launch pad in the unlikely case of booster failing at liftoff or other scenario that would threaten astronauts inside the spacecraft.

The SuperDracos, each producing 15,000 pounds of thrust, are expected to lift the spacecraft about 5,000 feet above the launch pad before it parachutes into the Atlantic Ocean about a mile offshore. The whole test will take about a minute and a half. Recovery teams will retrieve the Crew Dragon from the ocean at the end of the test.

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX. “The pad abort is going to show that we've developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It's our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

The test window will open at 7 a.m. May 6 and extend until 2:30 p.m. EDT. NASA will provide updates about the test on our Commercial Crew Blog and air the test live on NASA Television.

"No matter what happens on test day, SpaceX is going to learn a lot," said Jon Cowart, NASA's partner manager for SpaceX. "One test is worth a thousand good analyses."

Speaking at Kennedy Space Center a few miles from the launch pad, Koenigsmann and Cowart said the test is designed to gather lots of information about the spacecraft and the SuperDracos. That's why the Crew Dragon has been outfitted with 270 sensors and will carry a human-sized test-dummy, which the SpaceX team calls Buster, that will measure acceleration and other forces throughout the test.

"There’s a lot of instrumentation on this flight – a lot," Koenigsmann said. "Temperature sensors on the outside, acoustic sensors, microphones. This is basically a flying instrumentation deck. At the end of the day, that’s the point of tests, to get lots of data." 

The test is one of the milestones NASA's Commercial Crew Program and SpaceX agreed to as part of a developmental effort for a privately owned and operated crew transportation system that can safely and economically carry crews to and from low-Earth orbit. SpaceX will perform the test under its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement but will use the data gathered during the development flight as it continues on the path to certification.

SpaceX and Boeing are working under separate Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts to complete the development of their spacecraft and flight systems ahead of flight tests in 2017 to certify their use in operational flights to the International Space Station.

NASA's spaceflight specialists have been working with SpaceX throughout the design of Crew Dragon and will analyze the results of the flight test along with the company. The results will be used to inform a host of computer models and plans before the spacecraft's final version moves into production.

Whether the Crew Dragon accomplishes its full flight plan flawlessly or not, SpaceX engineers said they will be able to meet numerous testing goals even with a very short flight. The teams want to see things such as how the eight engines interact together, how fast they can lift the 8-ton spacecraft off the launch pad and what kind of acceleration the abort system would place on astronauts.

"The point is to gather data - you don’t have to have a flawless test to be successful," Cowart said.

The hypergolic-fueled engines will burn for only six seconds, but that will be enough to send the spacecraft up and away from the pad in a real situation. The combined 120,000 pounds of thrust of the SuperDracos will be almost twice the power of the Redstone rocket that carried astronaut Alan Shepard into space 54 years ago, making him the first American in space.

In the Crew Dragon the abort system is integrated into the side of the spacecraft, instead of on top. The ability to lift astronauts and crew members out of harm's way is a vital criteria for the next generation of piloted spacecraft and NASA’s certification contracts include abort capability requirements.

Credit: NASA

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