The company plans to fly a Falcon 9 rocket in what would initially appear to be a normal launch. But nearly 90 seconds after liftoff, the spacecraft the company is developing to fly NASA’s astronauts would fire its abort engines, hurling it quickly away from the booster. The force of that ejection is expected to send the rocket into an uncontrollable trajectory that could force it to come apart and possibly explode into a fireball a few miles downrange over the Atlantic Ocean.
Either way, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said on Twitter it would be a “gnarly” display.
The test is a critical milestone for SpaceX — a chance to prove that if something ever went wrong with its rocket, the astronauts in the Dragon spacecraft could be whisked away to safety.
If successful, the mission would move the company a step closer to its first flights with astronauts, a key goal for Musk since he founded SpaceX in 2002.
NASA is also looking forward to that flight. The space agency has been unable to fly human beings to space since the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011. Since then, the United States has been forced to rely on Russia for trips to the International Space Station, paying as much as $84 million a seat.
In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to design and build spacecraft capable of flying its astronauts to the space station. Both companies were supposed to fly by 2017 but have suffered setbacks and delays.
Last month, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft suffered a major problem during a test flight without astronauts on board. After reaching space, a software problem failed to fire the spacecraft’s main booster on time, and the plan for it to dock with the space station was canceled and the mission cut short. The Starliner spacecraft landed safely in the New Mexico desert two days later.
Last spring, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule exploded during a test of its emergency abort engines, sending a plume of smoke off the Florida Space Coast. The company blamed a valve that caused a propellant leak. The company made some modifications that it said fixed the problem and has since tested the engines successfully on the ground.
NASA and SpaceX hope they will never need to use the abort capability. But space is dangerous; rockets are lofted by a controlled explosion of enormous force, and accidents happen. In late 2018, the Russian rocket carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and his Russian counterpart, Alexey Ovchinin, suffered a problem when its side boosters failed to separate properly. The Soyuz spacecraft’s abort system kicked in, giving the astronauts a wild ride to the edge of space.
The astronauts experienced “7Gs,” or seven times the force of gravity, and afterward Hague recalled “being shaken violently from side to side” as the escape motors fired. But they landed safely in what officials called a “successful failure.”
The Soyuz incident “really drives home the point of why we need to have these systems,” Benji Reed, the director of crew mission management for SpaceX, said during a briefing Friday.
SpaceX’s test Saturday should go quickly. Once the rocket takes off, sometime between 8 a.m. and noon, the Dragon’s abort engines should ignite 84 seconds into flight, when the rocket is about 12 miles high, two miles downrange over the Atlantic Ocean and traveling nearly twice the speed of sound.
While the spacecraft flies away to safety, the rocket, which has been launched three previous times, is expected to come apart by aerodynamic forces that could also cause it to explode.
“We expect there to be some sort of ignition and possibly a fireball of some kind,” Reed said.
Any excess propellant “is expected to be consumed in the deflagration or aerosolized,” according to an environmental assessment compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration.
SpaceX expects most of the debris “to sink relatively quickly after impact with the ocean’s surface.” But SpaceX would quickly deploy boats to clean up any debris left floating. It also will test recovering the capsule as quickly as possible.
Kathy Lueders, who manages the Commercial Crew Program for NASA, said that if Saturday’s mission goes well, and SpaceX successfully completes a series of additional tests of its parachute system, the company could conceivably launch its first mission with crews as early as March.
“We’ve got work to do,” she said. “But honestly getting this test behind us is a huge milestone.”