Just over a minute into its flight, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded in a fiery burst some 19km above the ground in what CEO Elon Musk later described as a “picture perfect mission.” That’s because the crew capsule atop it had ejected exactly as planned, successfully simulating an emergency escape and thus bringing the company one step closer to shuttling astronauts to the International Space Station.
The test was NASA’s “last open milestone,” NASA commercial crew program manager, Kathy Lueders, told the New York Post. A similar emergency manoeuvre saved the lives of an astronaut and cosmonaut involved in a 2018 launch in Russia after the rocket carrying them became damaged during launch. Now all that remains for SpaceX is a final trial mission with actual astronauts aboard—instead of the crash-test dummies on Sunday’s flight—which could happen as soon as March, she added.
Crew Dragon shot off from the rocket at “more than double the speed of sound,” Musk told reporters per Reuters. After reaching about three times the altitude of your typical jetliner, propelled by its so-called SuperDraco thrusters, it parachuted safely into the ocean about 30 km off the coast of Florida in a splashdown cheered by SpaceX’s onlooking team.
“It is a picture perfect mission. It went as well as one can possibly expect,” Musk said.
An earlier abort engine test in April had delayed the company’s timeline significantly after one of its crew capsules suffered an “anomaly” and burst into flames on the launchpad, resulting in a nearly yearlong investigation, Reuters reported.
2020 could be the first year NASA launches astronauts from American soil since it retired its Space Shuttle program in 2011. In 2014, NASA awarded $US2.5 ($4) billion to SpaceX and $US4.2 ($6) billion to Boeing as part of its Commercial Crew Development Program. While both companies are behind schedule after setbacks last year (Boeing suffered an apparent software malfunction during a December launch, rendering it unable to dock with the ISS), they both appear on track for crewed tests sometime this year.