SpaceX Aiming for Crew-Dragon Pad Abort Test on May 5

SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft is prepared for critical pad abort test that will take place at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, in May. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is prepared for critical pad abort test that will take place at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla., in May. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX and NASA today announced no-earlier-than (NET) Tuesday, May 5, for conducting the company’s highly-anticipated, and critically important, Dragon Pad Abort Test (PAT) at the company’s primary launch site on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX is already well into the development of their crewed space systems for low-Earth orbit transport, having secured a multi-billion dollar NASA contract last year to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) starting in the next couple years, but before any astronaut straps themselves inside a Dragon capsule, SpaceX must successfully demonstrate the spacecraft’s ability to abort from a launch or pad emergency and safely carry crew members out of harm’s way.

On May 5 the company will conduct their first pad abort test of a prototype Crew Dragon (also known as the Dragon 2) to demonstrate precisely that, simulating an emergency abort from a test stand at SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40). The test is currently scheduled to take place at around 9:30 a.m. EDT, with a four-hour window available to conduct the PAT. Should the May 5 attempt be scrubbed, SpaceX does have May 6 secured on the range to try again.

SuperDraco engines will power a revolutionary launch escape system that will make SpaceX’s Dragon the safest spacecraft in the world. Eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SuperDraco engines will power a revolutionary launch escape system that will make SpaceX’s Dragon the safest spacecraft in the world. Photo Credit: SpaceX

“The whole test is less than two minutes from pad to splashdown,” said SpaceX in comments to AmericaSpace, “and most of that distance is covered in the first 25-30 seconds of the test.”

For the test the Dragon PAT vehicle will be mounted atop a custom-made truss to simulate the spacecraft atop a Falcon-9 rocket, and will be outfitted with hundreds of instruments and sensors for data collection. An instrumented mannequin will be the sole passenger, providing SpaceX with important information regarding the stresses put on the mannequin, information that will be be critical in ensuring development an abort system that prevents serious injury to the crew.

A series of eight SpaceX-designed “SuperDraco” engines, an advanced version of the Draco engines currently used by SpaceX’s un-crewed “cargo only” Dragon to maneuver on orbit and during reentry, will ignite to begin the PAT—just as they would in a real emergency scenario either on the pad or in flight. The eight SuperDraco engines are built into the side walls of the Crew Dragon, and will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety (16,000 pounds of thrust each, compared to 100 pounds of thrust each with the original Draco thrusters on Dragon 1)

After ascending thousands of feet the PAT Dragon will deploy three parachutes, splashing down offshore of Cape Canaveral.

The engines can also be restarted multiple times if necessary, and the engines will have the ability to deep throttle, providing astronauts with precise control and enormous power. In addition, as a part of a recoverable Dragon spacecraft, the engines can be used repeatedly, helping to advance SpaceX’s long-term goal of making spacecraft more like airplanes, which can be flown again and again with minimal maintenance between flights.

This gives SpaceX’s launch escape system many advantages over past systems. It is inherently safer because it is not jettisoned like all other escape systems. This distinction provides astronauts with the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the launch, not just in the first few minutes. The eight SuperDracos also provide redundancy, coming in pairs, so if one engine fails the other can increase its thrust to compensate for the engine that is not firing.

Artist's illustration showing various stages of the Dragon V2 spacecraft's unique propulsive landing ability, allowing for landings almost anywhere in the world. Image Credits: SpaceX / AmericaSpace

Artist’s illustration showing various stages of the Dragon V2 spacecraft’s unique propulsive landing ability, allowing for landings almost anywhere in the world. Image Credits: SpaceX / AmericaSpace

The SuperDraco engines on the Dragon-2 are also the first fully 3-D printed engines intended for space. The chamber is regeneratively cooled and printed in Inconel, a high-performance superalloy that offers both high strength and toughness for increased reliability; they will become the first printed rocket engines ever used in spaceflight. SpaceX has completed qualification testing for the SuperDraco thruster at the company’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas, which included testing across a variety of conditions including multiple starts, extended firing durations, and extreme off-nominal propellant flow and temperatures.

The initial crewed flights on Dragon will parachute safely into the waters of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California, but future missions will land on terra firma by also employing the SuperDraco engines; so the engines have been designed to serve multiple roles since the beginning.

A second abort test is expected to be conducted later this year to put the Dragon’s in-flight abort capability into action, demonstrating that it can carry a crew safely away from an exploding or out of control Falcon-9 rocket. If the PAT Dragon survives its test next month in good condition, SpaceX may use the same vehicle for the in-flight abort test as well.

The first orbital space flight for the Crew Dragon is expected to fly in 2016, without a crew, to validate the system as a whole before carrying out the first crewed test flight in early 2017.

 

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28 comments to SpaceX Aiming for Crew-Dragon Pad Abort Test on May 5

  • Gary Church

    This system highlights the SpaceX philosophy that made the shuttle a failure. While both companies deny it, these faux escape systems real purpose, in my view, is to boost tourist space stations. There is no other reason to fill a capsule with so much hypergolic propellent- and make a mockery of crew survivability. It is not “revolutionary” and does not make for a safe spacecraft. The conventional tractor escape tower, like 4 wheels on a car, is pretty much impossible to improve upon. The space shuttle also sacrificed crew safety in pursuit of the profit motive.

    Sooner or later someone is going to throw the B.S. flag on this system and Boeing and SpaceX will be faced with an expensive redesign and new design for a escape tower. If this does not happen, it will prove we have learned nothing from the shuttle program and the crews that were lost.

    • I am going to hate myself for replying to this because it will undoubtedly unleash a torrent of needlessly angry replies, but you seem to be operating under the erroneous assumption that a tractor launch escape system is the best and only system for launch aborts under all conditions without regard to other spacecraft design considerations. Mercury (after it jettisoned its LES tower) and Gemini (after ejection seat use was no longer safe) used their retrorockets in a pusher configuration for launch abort options. After they jettisoned their LES towers, Apollo and Soyuz used their service module propulsion systems in a pusher mode for launch aborts. In fact, Soyuz used precisely this method for the “Soyuz 18A” launch abort on April 5, 1975 with the crew safely recovered afterwards.

      http://www.drewexmachina.com/2014/11/18/a-brief-history-of-launch-aborts/

      Unless you have some calculations to present or a published paper or some other technical material that you can share with us that proves that the system to be used by Dragon is inherently unsafe, I am afraid I am inclined to trust the work of thousands of aerospace engineers working over the last half of a century as well as that of the SpaceX engineers and NASA engineers overseeing this work as part of their safety certification process over your opinion which has a proven anti-SpaceX bias.

      Feel free to reply angrily and label me as part of the “NewSpace mob” in lieu of a thoughtful response because I do not wish to be accused of “shutting you down” without cause once again.

  • Scott Smith

    Gary: I’ve seen many of your posts slamming the “new space” companies. This one seems over the top and poorly thought out to me.
    First the idea of a similarity between the escape systems of the shuttle and SpaceX eludes me. For most of it’s career the shuttle had no escape system except to detach the orbiter and slowly glide away from an exploding rocket. SpaceX is trying to come up with a system that can be used at any point in the flight until second stage separation. At least they are trying. Practically every manned space craft has used hypergolic fuels and to the best of my knowledge they have never been a serious problem. I will grant you they have never been used in this quantity before except on the shuttle due to it’s sheer mass. My bigger fear is a failure of multiple escape motors tumbling the craft.
    Your analogy between tractor towers and the wheels on a car is strained at best unless you are in the habit of jettisoning your wheels half way to the store.
    If you wish to be taken seriously, make more reasoned arguments. There is always room to slam SpaceX for their continuous schedule slippage among other things.

  • Gary Church

    “the idea of a similarity between the escape systems of the shuttle and SpaceX eludes me.”

    It eludes you because you were not paying attention at all- the shuttle had no escape system. I made no such comparison. The complaint was about compromising crew safety- I notice SpaceX fans have a problem with reading comprehension.

    “Your analogy between tractor towers and the wheels on a car is strained at best-”

    4 wheels work better than 3 or 5, a tractor tower on top that is jettisoned works better than anything underneath that is not. Don’t strain yourself thinking about that too much.

    “If you wish to be taken seriously, make more reasoned arguments.”

    I do not think I care if I am “taken seriously” by anyone with so little understanding of what hypergolic propellents actually are. These taxis are going to loaded up with them.

    I am accustomed to outraged NewSpace sycophants firing back at me. Always room to slam SpaceX….puh-leez.

    • Scott smith

      “This system highlights the SpaceX philosophy that made the shuttle a failure. While both companies deny it, these faux escape systems…” Sure sounds like you are comparing them to me. No problem with my reading comprehension there. If you were referring to Boeing and SpaceX it sure wasn’t obvious. The problem is obviously more in your writing ability.

      Again with the auto analogy. Why is a tractor tower better? Scientific and engineering answers please. Your feelings mean nothing to me and I don’t have to strain. If tractor systems are better, why do all rockets thrust from the bottom and how does jettisoning it only part way through the flight improve crew safety? Multiple engines add complexity but also improve redundancy.

      I understand what hypergolic propellants are just fine. They are dangerous to produce, transport and transfer. I have found multiple accidents with them on the ground but not a single instance where they have harmed a crewman inside a spacecraft. Your concern seems misplaced.

      I am hardly outraged. I like reasoned debate. Now if there was just some reason in your comments…

      • Gary Church

        Why is a tractor tower better?

        It does not load up the capsule with propellents.
        When the period of greatest danger is over- after the second stage ignites and every pound really starts to count- it is sent on it’s way and all those pounds go away. It would be difficult to jettison if it was not on top of the capsule.

        “-not a single instance where they have harmed a crewman inside a spacecraft.”

        Almost killed the the three Apollo-Soyuz crew.

        • John hare

          Adding a staging event and throwing away useful propellant and hardware that has already been boosted is a superior solution?

          • Gary Church

            “Throwing away” a tower after the second stage has ignited adds quite a bit of payload and get’s rid of the escape system that was needed sitting on the pad, during ignition, during the initial lift-off, through Max-Q, and during staging and ignition of the second stage. That “useful propellent and hardware” is no longer of much use at that point- but getting rid of it after second stage ignition is very useful for increasing payload.

            It is the superior solution and will remain so. There were very good reasons it was adopted and loading up the capsule with hypergolics and engines was not- and those reasons are as valid today as they were over half a century ago. Nothing has changed- it is the same supremely toxic propellent. Even if it was not toxic the reasoning is flawed- the capsule is not the place to store that much propellent.

            It is an attempt to make money by trading crew safety for a dual purpose system useful for orbital maneuvers (such as keeping tourist space stations in the right orbit).

        • “Almost killed the the three Apollo-Soyuz crew.”

          This incident was the result of the crew failing to deactivate the descending CM’s attitude control thrusters before opening the cabin vent that allowed outside air in to equalize the pressure. Even if the Apollo CM used something other than hypergolic propellants for its attitude control system, dangerous exhaust products would still have been introduced into the CM cabin by this oversight and still place the astronauts lives in danger.

          By your logic, this incident is an argument for having no propulsion systems what so ever on the CM to avoid a similar accident – a design constraint that would have had a deleterious cascade effect on the entire Apollo design. A better solution would have been to add a safety interlock that would prevent the cabin vent from being opened until after the attitude thrusters were deactivated. Do you have another example you can cite among the almost 300 crewed spaceflights that used hypergolic propellants in its propulsion systems where such propellants caused a problem?

          • Gary Church

            Almost killed the the three Apollo-Soyuz crew.

            • And it would have “almost killed the crew” even if it wasn’t hypergolic propellants. This was not a hypergolic propellant safety issue, it was a ventilation issue.

              • Gary Church

                And guns don’t kill people either.

              • Gary Church

                For a physicist you don’t seem very bright. Since there is no other system other than hypergolic used for attitude control thrusters your comment is a red herring. And if there was some other propellents used it would not have put them in the hospital for a month with pneumonia- hypergolics are the chemicals from hell. You can breathe oxygen (really) and even hydrogen and pour alcohol or kerosene on yourself without too much damage. Nitrogen Tetroxide? Uh-huh.

                I am just so tired of fighting with people on these space forums. It is really depressing.

                • Breathing in kerosene and alcohol fumes is not very good for humans either. And alcohol, kerosene and especially hydrogen in a spacecraft cabin are safety issues since they are explosive. But this discussion misses the point that your example is not a good argument against having hypergolics on a manned spacecraft, it is an argument to have better crew and ventilation procedures during a capsule’s descent. And since Dragon V2 has a totally different landing procedure and ventilation requirements than the Apollo CM, your example does not really apply (a “red herring” seems to be the phrase you like to use).

                  Now notice I managed to respond to your comment without resorting to personal attacks like “For a physicist you don’t seem very bright” as you did in your response? Maybe the reason you seem to fight “with people on these space forums” is because you are the one picking the fights???

  • Not Gary Church

    So first you make a fool of yourself, and then you go ad-hominem on the people correctly pointing out the problems in your reasoning.

    Soyuz uses hypergolics in their thrusters too. Shuttle used hypergolic engines for on orbit manoevring. Apollo used hypergolic engines for the most crucial parts of the missions, and they left earth also “loaded up with them”. So I’m not sure what your problem with hypergolics is, but they have obviously been used often in manned spacecraft without any problems. So please, try again. Convince us all why you think an escape system based on hypergolic engines is compromising crew safety.

    And can you explain what your problem is with Boeing’s escape system (which is powered by an ethanol/oxygen engine)? Because it seems to fit your description of “conventional tractor escape tower”.

    And from now on, I promise, I will just ignore any “Gary Church” post I come across, unless you start posting reasonable opinions.

  • Gary Church

    “Convince us all why you think an escape system based on hypergolic engines is compromising crew safety.”

    Who is “us all”? I pray you will keep your promise and ignore my posts but in my experience this is just the beginning.

  • These tests are reminiscent of the first Apollo abort tests from the pad and later using the Little Joe II booster a half a century ago. Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 owe a lot to the work done long ago by NASA and its contractors for the Apollo program.

    http://www.drewexmachina.com/2014/05/13/the-first-apollo-little-joe-ii-launch-50-years-ago-today/

  • Tracy the Troll

    Does anyone know if the long term plan is to use the super draco engines as a propulsed landing for the DV2 or will it only be employed if the parachute landing system fails?

    • Once SpaceX begins landing DV2 on solid ground the chutes will serve as a backup for the SuperDracos, not the other way around.

      • Gary Church

        Landing the toxic dragon with those thrusters as a standard practice is…..crazy. Any kind of a crash will release those flesh dissolving propellents into the crew compartment and surrounding area. I have no idea what Musk is playing at here but landing this monstrosity in this fashion is not going to happen. Not on Earth. Maybe he plans on landing on the Moon. But considering any kind of Moon program dumps the NewSpace business plan in the trashcan that is highly unlikely. Or maybe he will call it a Mars lander.

        • Atypical

          I don’t see how the Dragon landing with the hypergolic fuels is any different than the Shuttle doing the same thing. If the fuels themselves are the problem the Shuttle would likely have landed with more than the Dragon. The Shuttle carried 31,000 lbs at launch and the Dragon will carry 2,800 lbs at launch. Removing the remaining hypergolic fuel was standard post mission protocol so the Shuttle carried some back through landing. This would be the same fuel that would endanger the Shuttle astronauts in a crash landing.

          As far as hypergolic fuels go the Shuttle and the Dragon carry the same danger. Do you have any reports or studies that can clarify any dangers that would be present on the Dragon that I may have not considered?

          FYI: after the reaction the resultant chemicals are carbon dioxide, water, and nitrogen gas.

  • Gary Church

    “This gives SpaceX’s launch escape system many advantages over past systems. It is inherently safer because it is not jettisoned like all other escape systems. This distinction provides astronauts with the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the launch, not just in the first few minutes.”

    SpaceX advertising continues to insult the intelligence of anyone with a basic knowledge of space flight.

    This is much like their claims of what a superior propellent kerosene is compared to hydrogen. Actually the large-booster solid fuel technology and the hydrogen turbopump technology were both too expensive so they went cheap.

    And their claims that using 9 crummy little engines is superior to using one because it allows for an engine failure. Actually it completely violates the KISS principle and was again a case of simply going cheap.

    Now this escape-system-that-is-not-an-escape-system. Actually it is “inherently safer” to jettison the escape system after the second stage lights off; all the really dangerous flight regimes, including just sitting on the pad (a pad fire is a significant danger), are past. Instead of getting rid of a relatively safe and very simple solid fuel/tower assembly to increase payload the crew is stuck in a far more complex vehicle loaded with toxic explosives.

    The adjective “Orwellian” comes to mind.

  • ken anthony

    again a case of simply going cheap

    The horror of a rocket company keeping down costs. (With a 100% primary mission reliability.)

    • Gary Church

      The holy mantra, scream cheap. Except tax dollars are what built SpaceX. It is the poster child for corporate welfare and free NASA technology and support is how they fake their prices.

      No ISS, No SpaceX, No NASA, No SpaceX, No tax dollars, No SpaceX.
      No ISS/NASA/tax dollars, no “keeping costs down.”

    • Ken,

      I’m glad SpaceX is driving launch costs down. But SpaceX’s first 4 missions (my source left after SpX-3) encountered snafus, some of which nearly led to a loss of mission or, in two cases damaged and lost payloads. But SpaceX mission upsets are not important.

      What is important is that SpaceX engineers have resolved issues that cropped-up on each mission. And that is what SpaceX’s fans and supporters should emphasize rather than the unsupported notion of successful primary mission success.

      People don’t get that SpaceX is run like a software, not a hardware, company. Write, test, fix. And do it yesterday! So far it’s working well. That is worth embracing. And it’s what is disrupting the launch industry.