Before it can conduct manned missions to the ISS, the Moon, Mars and Beyond, SpaceX has to prove that its Crew Dragon capsule has what it takes to keep astronauts safe during the flight. One last key hurdle in this endeavor is to test the Crew Dragon’s built-in escape system. The launch escape test – which will rely on the capsule’s 8 3D printed SuperDraco engines – is scheduled for today at 13:00 UTC and you can watch it live right here.
There are two approaches to such escape systems. As Space.com explains, the spacecraft of the Mercury and Apollo eras, as well as the Russian Soyuz capsule that astronauts ride in today, relied on a rocket that pulled the spacecraft away from its launch vehicle. In contrast, both the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner use a built-in system to push the spacecraft to safety.
Embedded within the outer hull of the Dragon capsule are eight engines called SuperDracos, which were among the first engines to ever be 3D printed by Space X to ensure lightweight and the unique capabilities required. If the vehicle’s computer senses that something is amiss during flight, it will trigger these thrusters to fire. Then, the SuperDracos will push the Crew Dragon up and away from the rocket. Once the capsule is at a safe distance from the troubled rocket, the Crew Dragon will deploy its parachutes and land in the Atlantic Ocean, where recovery vessels will retrieve the capsule and the crew.
SpaceX is targeting Saturday, January 18 for an in-flight test of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This test, which does not have NASA astronauts onboard the spacecraft, is intended to demonstrate Crew Dragon’s ability to reliably carry crew to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on the ascent.
The four-hour test window opens at 8:00 a.m. EST, or 13:00 UTC. Backup test opportunities with the same four-hour launch window opening at 8:00 a.m. EST, or 13:00 UTC, are available on Sunday, January 19 and Monday, January 20. Current weather data suggests our best opportunity for the launch escape test will be towards the end of the four-hour window, but SpaceX will continue to provide updates as new data becomes available.