NASA has officially declared SpaceX’s recent Crew Dragon Pad Abort Test (PAT) a success, awarding the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company $30 million for completion of that very important development milestone under their Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
The flight test, which took place May 6, marked a big step forward as SpaceX aims to deliver U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), aboard a U.S.-manufactured spacecraft, and from U.S. soil, for the first time since the nation’s space shuttle fleet retired from service in 2011.
“This test was highly visible and provided volumes of important information, which serves as tangible proof that our team is making significant progress toward launching crews on American rockets from America soon,” said Jon Cowart, partner manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “The reams of data collected provide designers with a real benchmark of how accurate their analyses and models are at predicting reality. As great as our modern computational methods are, they still can’t beat a flight test, like this, for finding out what is going on with the hardware.”
Launching off a specially made truss to simulate the spacecraft atop a Falcon-9 rocket from Space Launch Complex-40, the 21,000-lb prototype capsule took flight quickly under 120,000 lbs of axial thrust from its eight SuperDraco engines, which are intended to carry astronauts to safety in the event of an emergency on the pad or during ascent (16,000 lbs of thrust each, compared to 100 lbs of thrust each with the original Draco thrusters on Dragon 1).
The eight SuperDraco engines, which are built directly into Crew Dragon’s walls, are the first fully 3-D printed engines intended for space to ever be developed.
After ascending 3,500 ft in six seconds, the PAT Dragon jettisoned its trunk and deployed a pair of drogue chutes, followed by a trio of main parachutes and splashdown less than a mile offshore of the launch site, minutes later.
The vehicle was outfitted with hundreds of instruments and sensors for data collection, and even had an instrumented mannequin as 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 crews.
Dragon’s PAT should provide SpaceX significant data in the areas of Sequencing, Closed-Loop Control, Trajectory, and External and Internal Environments. The PAT demonstrated the proper sequencing of the pad-abort timeline as well, serving to validate the execution of multiple critical commands in a very short period. Trajectory data for both maximum altitude and downrange distance from the pad was gathered as well, including data on various internal and external factors to Crew Dragon to help ensure safe conditions for crew transport.
“This is the first major flight test for a vehicle that will bring astronauts to space for the entire Commercial Crew Program,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. “The successful test validated key predictions as it relates to the transport of astronauts to the space station. With NASA’s support, SpaceX continues to make excellent and rapid progress in making the Crew Dragon spacecraft the safest and most reliable vehicle ever flown.”
The approval of the PAT milestone payment follows NASA’s authorization for Boeing to begin work toward its first post-certification mission with the CST-100 crew capsule, which also received a multi-billion dollar NASA contract for crew transport to and from the ISS. The company recently received the first of up to six orders to execute a crew-rotation mission to the ISS, which NASA stressed does not necessarily imply that a Boeing CST-100 capsule will fly ahead of a SpaceX Crew Dragon.
SpaceX will conduct one more abort test, an In-Flight Abort atop a Falcon-9 rocket launch, using the same Crew Dragon prototype capsule, later this summer.
Both SpaceX and Boeing are expected to begin carrying out the first operational crewed flights for NASA in 2017, but that is dependent on NASA funding, which is dependent on the federal government. The debate is still ongoing in Congress, but it appears that NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will receive several hundred million dollars less than what the space agency and the White House requested for FY2016, which will likely delay America’s return to human spaceflight from U.S. soil once again.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden had this to say about it:
“I am deeply disappointed that the Senate Appropriations subcommittee does not fully support NASA’s plan to once again launch American astronauts from U.S. soil as soon as possible, and instead favors continuing to write checks to Russia. By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts to space – and continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the Russian economy rather than our own.”
WATCH! AmericaSpace Dragon PAT Video Compilation
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