– January 20, 2020 – Science
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- SpaceX can finally transport astronauts into space
This is a considerable challenge that SpaceX has just accomplished. On January 19, a day after the original schedule, the U.S. company launched a Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral launch base on the east coast of the United States to demonstrate the operation of an emergency evacuation system under real-life conditions. The test, which took place on 20 January, was a success.
Specifically, this weekend’s operation consisted of showing how SpaceX is able to rescue astronauts on their way to the International Space Station if the launcher encounters a critical failure during its ascent. In the event of imminent danger, therefore, the capsule that carries the crew, called the Dragon Crew, plays a decisive role in preserving life on board.
If the rocket explodes, if the thrust is too low and the rocket falls to earth, or if it disintegrates, the capsule dissociates from the Falcon 9 and escapes at very high speed thanks to its own propulsion system. Once at a good distance, the capsule then manoeuvres to prepare its return to the surface and slows its fall thanks to its parachutes.
This is the scenario that played out smoothly on January 19 over the Atlantic Ocean, where the capsule finished its run. The sequence, which can be reviewed in the video below, began with a conventional takeoff and then, after about one minute and a half of flight, the rocket engines shut down. At the same time, those in the capsule lit up to put the capsule out of harm’s way.
The capsule continued its ascent in the atmosphere for a while, before falling towards the Earth because it did not have sufficient speed to escape gravity. Almost five minutes after takeoff, the ship opened its parachutes. And, almost four minutes later, he landed without a problem. As for the rocket, its fate is more sinister: it self-destructed shortly after the capsule’s departure.
The success of this flight has obviously prompted several comments, starting with that of NASA boss Jim Bridenstine. “This litmus test puts us in a position to send American astronauts back on American rockets from American soil very soon,” he said, referring to the fact that the United States is dependent on Russia for access to the ISS.
American astronaut Nick Hague, who was confronted with such a scenario in 2018, also reacted: “Believe me… surviving a rocket failure thanks to a well-functioning evacuation system made today’s test personal“. He was on board the Soyuz MS-10 mission when the launcher experienced a thrust problem. Luckily, it all turned out well.
During the test, the Falcon 9 rocket was intentionally destroyed. // Source: SpaceX
For his part, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, also followed the launch and its conclusion closely, underlining the complexity of such a maneuver: “the test to interrupt a high-altitude supersonic flight is a risky mission, because it pushes the limits in so many ways,” he said, before thanking his teams and NASA once he was certain that everything went as planned.
Now the next step is to move from theory to practice. So far, all tests have involved an unoccupied capsule, for obvious safety reasons. With the aim of transporting crews to the ISS, it will now be necessary to get down to work to make these years of preparation a reality. This final step must be taken in the first half of 2020.
But before sending astronauts on long-duration missions into space, there will be an intermediate step to take: a manned training flight to the International Space Station. The “test pilots” are Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley. They obviously shared their satisfaction that everything went according to plan, given the role they are going to play.
But before Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley fly to the ISS, setting the stage for the crew rotations, SpaceX and NASA will have a few more weeks of analysis to see if the data recorded during this test matches the data anticipated upstream. In the meantime, the two astronauts will continue their training to be ready for D-Day.
When that day comes, it will be a great moment, both for SpaceX and NASA, but also for the United States. In fact, it has been almost ten years – since the space shuttle was shut down – that the country has not been able to transport its astronauts from its own soil. Since then, Washington had to rely on Moscow. An addiction that will soon be a thing of the past.