SpaceX Prepares to Destroy Rocket for NASA in Safety Test

SpaceX Prepares to Destroy Rocket for NASA in Safety Test

On Saturday morning, SpaceX hopes that destroying a rocket in flight will show that its spacecraft are safe for astronauts.

Since 2012, the company founded by Elon Musk has been flying to the International Space Station for NASA, but it has never before carried a human crew, only cargo. In a final major milestone before it is ready to start taking NASA astronauts to the station, SpaceX will test a system that is to rescue astronauts in case of an emergency during launch.

“The main objective of this test is to show that we can carry the astronauts safely away,” said Benji Reed, director of crew mission management for SpaceX, during a news conference on Friday.

This flight of a Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule on top is known as an in-flight abort test. It will not have any astronauts aboard, and it will not be like most launches where “we’re really hoping for it not to be exciting,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of the commercial crew program for NASA. “I will tell you, tomorrow will be an exciting day.”

About 84 seconds after launch, which might be as early as 8 a.m. Eastern time, the Falcon 9 rocket will shut off its nine engines, simulating a failure, and powerful thrusters on the Crew Dragon will ignite to propel the capsule away. The force of that sudden departure will destroy the rocket, possibly even causing it to explode.

“Probably a fireball of some kind,” Mr. Reed said.

After reaching an altitude of about 25 miles, the Dragon will then drop off the “trunk,” or bottom half of the spacecraft, and small thrusters will push the capsule into the correct vertical orientation before parachutes deploy. It is to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean just 10 minutes after launch.

NASA Television is to broadcast coverage of the test beginning at 7:45 a.m.

If the test is successful, Ms. Lueders said, the next Crew Dragon mission, which is scheduled to take two NASA astronauts, Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken, to the space station, could launch as soon as early March.

If bad weather or technical problems arise before the abort test, the launch could be pushed back as much as four hours to noon. Mr. Reed said there were discussions to possibly extend the launch window into the afternoon.

Weather forecasts predict a 90 percent chance of good conditions at the launchpad. But if the ocean is too choppy where the capsule is to splash down, it could delay the liftoff. “You all may be waiting for a while,” Ms. Lueders said, “while we’re trying to find the perfect time for us to be able to conduct this test.”

There are backup opportunities for conducting the launch on Sunday and Monday, although weather could again cause problems.

SpaceX’s in-flight abort test brings NASA closer to the culmination of its strategy of turning to private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — for providing transportation for its astronauts. In the past, NASA built and operated its own vehicles, like the space shuttles.

Delays have pushed back the first commercial crew flights by a couple of years, but NASA hopes that the first crewed missions will take off this year. In California, SpaceX is completing construction of its next Crew Dragon capsule and plans to ship it to Florida within a few weeks.

Last month, Boeing launched its capsule, called Starliner, in a test flight without astronauts, but a problem with the spacecraft’s clock led to calling off a planned docking at the space station. Boeing and NASA are investigating what went wrong and NASA will decide whether it will allow astronauts on the next Starliner flight, or it will require Boeing to first repeat the uncrewed orbital test flight.

Since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011, NASA has had to rely on Soyuz rockets built by Russia for taking astronauts into orbit. It is looking to buy one or two more seats from Russia, at a cost of more than $80 million apiece. If SpaceX and Boeing experience further delays, NASA will have to cut the number of astronauts at the space station, which would limit the amount of scientific research.

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