The space race in the U.S. is now a private one, with SpaceX and Boeing squaring off to be the first private companies to send their astronauts into space. And today marked a big step for SpaceX. They demonstrated that in the event of a launch emergency, the Dragon 2 space capsule can eject and get away from the Falcon 9 rockets, hopefully keeping astronauts inside safe, reports Time Fernholz for Quartz.
The so-called "pad abort" test shows the space capsule flying off into the air, leaving the rocket behind and parachuting down.
The capsule is designed for this kind of safety maneuver: It boasts eight SuperDraco rocket engines around the body. The engines are among first built and flown with 3D printed components, part of the pursuit of cheaper, more efficient manufacturing processes that have defined SpaceX—and are coming to define its competitors, as well.
The test was at Cape Canaveral in Florida and this time the only passenger was a test dummy that will tell the engineers how humans may have fared during the maneuver. The eject function differs from traditional pad abort arrangements used by the Mercury and Apollo programs, which relied on a tower atop the capsule that could pull it away at the last minute. The newer method is "the more sophisticated, modern approach. And in my opinion it’s also the safer approach to launch escape," says Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance, reports Jonathan Amos for BBC News.
The system also helps SpaceX recycle the Dragon capsules at the end of a mission to be used again. They also hope to reuse rockets, but that obstacle hasn't yet been overcome. Amos reports for BBC News that SpaceX will attempt a pad abort maneuver about a minute or two after the rockets lift off. That test will happen later this year.