After weather-related delays yesterday, SpaceX has successfully tested the abort feature of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, clearing the way for the first manned flights later on in the year.
The test occurred this morning around 10:30 AM eastern time and consisted of an unmanned launch followed by a demonstration of the Dragon’s abort procedure less than two minutes into the ascent. The crew module successfully detached from the rocket stages just after a point called “Max Q,” where the forces acting on the capsule peak. The capsule then successfully parachuted down to Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic safely.
After the Dragon separated from the rest of the rocket, the remaining stages were destabilized and eventually exploded (as expected), but the crew module had already fallen safely out of the way and was unharmed.
According to Ars Technica, the landing conditions for the crew module were rougher than expected. The success of the test despite those conditions may allow for a relaxation of some of the weather condition requirements currently in place which could offer greater flexibility for subsequent launches.
All of this is good news for SpaceX and NASA, who plan to launch the first manned mission using the Dragon later this year. If successful, the Dragon will provide NASA with the ability to once again launch astronauts to the International Space Station without the help of Russia, a capability lost when the Space Shuttle was retired. Musk has claimed that the first mission will be possible by second quarter of this year, but crew scheduling for the International Space Station could push it back farther.
Though SpaceX’s Dragon has provided new hope for NASA’s ability to expand manned space exploration in the wake of the retirement of the Space Shuttle nearly ten years ago, Elon Musk’s stated goals for SpaceX include the eventual colonization of Mars and his recent tweets on the subject have rankled some. Admitting that interplanetary travel, whenever it might become feasible, will be prohibitively expensive for most, Musk recently suggested that costs for travel to Mars could be offset by working off debts upon arrival, a curiously similar model to the indentured servitude that many immigrants to colonial Virginia suffered under back in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
Still, the prospect of introducing a new way to get to space remains exciting, and any eventual effort to get to Mars is far off, long enough away that Musk will hopefully see the drawbacks to his proposed Martian labor policy before his “Starship” ever leaves the ground. Until then, I think we should be cautiously optimistic about SpaceX and what it can do for the International Space Station and space exploration in general.