“Hold your fire.” SpaceX’s “Escape Pod”

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule making its escape. Image from SpaceX. Click to embiggen.

When I first saw images of SpaceX’s test of their Dragon capsule’s pad abort test, the obvious nerd-quote going through my mind was “Hold your fire. There’s no lifeforms.” Which was true for the test. And if you don’t get the reference, please just search on the net, roll your eyes, and sigh. For the rest of you, you’re welcome!!

The big news, then, is that on May 6, 2015, SpaceX conducted the first test of the abort system for their capsule, and it looks like it worked. It also looked really cool. But why conduct this nifty-looking test in the first place? In plain English, SpaceX would like to build space capsules to take humans into space. The capsule they’re advertising to accomplish this feat is the Dragon Version 2 (v2). The pad abort test they conducted this last week was a step towards actually building and operating a manned capsule.

The test is a milestone, a critical step, required by NASA of SpaceX as a part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The program’s goal is to ferry people to and from the International Space Station (ISS) using commercially-built space capsules from the U.S. (for more information about this interesting program, click here). This particular milestone begins testing the Dragon’s escape system, which is supposed to keep astronauts safe in case something goes wrong with the rocket beneath it–such as going kablooey like Orbital’s Antares rocket did in October 2014. If such an explosive event were to occur, then the capsule needs to lift off from the rocket body quickly, which it looks like the Dragon does. See the video of the test below and then read on.

According to SpaceX, the capsule accelerated from rest to 100 mph (161 kmh) in 1.2 seconds. It eventually reached a top speed of 345 mph (555 kmh), and was supposed to fly as high as 5.000 ft (1524 meters). It took eight liquid-fed SuperDraco engines to move the capsule that high and that quickly. Each engine puts out 15,000 lbs of thrust. The same engines would normally be used for Dragon capsule landing after atmospheric re-entry.

The capsule does separate from the trunk (the white cylinder it’s attached to), flips, and then pops out a few parachutes to float down to the Atlantic Ocean. The Dragon capsule is supposed to be able to do this type of maneuver throughout a rocket flight, from launch pad through orbit. SpaceX notes that, based on data from the 270 sensors mounted on the capsule and possibly on the dummy sitting inside, a human would have come through just fine. But this is a single test, and there’s more testing to come for SpaceX. SpaceX is aiming to get the Dragon crew-rated and actually manned by humans traveling in it to and from the ISS come 2017. They seem to be making great progress.

You can go to SpaceX’s Pad Abort webpages to read more about the test and view the pictures.

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