Tomorrow morning, SpaceX is scheduled to conduct the company’s highly anticipated first critical flight test for its Crew Dragon space capsule, known as the Pad Abort Test (PAT), at the company’s primary launch site at 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 NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) starting in 2017. 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 to safely carry crew members out of harm’s way.
The test is currently scheduled to take place at 9 a.m. EDT, within a 7.5-hour window available, to conduct the PAT. Should the May 6 attempt be scrubbed, SpaceX does have May 7 secured on the range to try again.
For the test, the Dragon PAT vehicle—which is a prototype of the space-worthy Crew Dragon being developed—is mounted atop a custom-made truss to simulate the spacecraft atop a Falcon-9 rocket, and it is outfitted with hundreds of instruments and sensors for data collection. An instrumented mannequin is the sole passenger, providing SpaceX with important data and other information regarding the stresses put on the mannequin—information that will be critical in ensuring development of 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 are the first fully 3-D printed engines intended for space. When lit they 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 several thousand feet, the PAT Dragon will deploy a trio of drogue chutes, then the three main parachutes, and splash down about a mile offshore of Cape Canaveral AFS.
As noted by Ben Evans in our two-part, in-depth Dragon PAT preview, SpaceX hopes to acquire significant data in the areas of Sequencing, Closed-Loop Control, Trajectory, and External and Internal Environments. The PAT will demonstrate the proper sequencing of the pad-abort timeline, serving to validate the execution of multiple critical commands in a very short period. It will obtain trajectory data for both maximum altitude and downrange distance from the pad and will gather data on “various internal and external factors to Crew Dragon to help ensure safe conditions for crew transport.”
Interestingly, SpaceX also noted that the crash test dummy is actually not nicknamed “Buster,” despite media reports to the contrary and SpaceX Vice President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann referring to the dummy as such during last Friday’s press briefing. “Buster the Dummy already works for a great show you may have heard of, called MythBusters,” SpaceX said in a press statement Monday. “Our dummy prefers to remain anonymous for the time being.”
READ our two-part in-depth preview of the Dragon PAT and the history of abort tests that paved the way.
FOLLOW our “Launch and Events Tracker” for regular updates and LIVE COVERAGE of the Dragon Pad Abort Test Wednesday morning.
BELOW PHOTOS CREDIT: SpaceX / AmericaSpace / Alan Walters / Mike Killian / John Studwell
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