SpaceX tests astronaut escape feature on Dragon spacecraft

The unmanned SpaceX Crew Dragon lands after lifting off from launch pad 40 during a Pad Abort Test at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Wednesday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
The unmanned SpaceX Crew Dragon lands after lifting off from launch pad 40 during a Pad Abort Test at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Wednesday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

MIAMI (AFP) - SpaceX on Wednesday launched the first flight test of the emergency astronaut escape feature on its Dragon spaceship, which aims to carry people to low-Earth orbit as early as 2017.

The California-based company headed by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk described it as "the first critical test in preparation for our first human missions." No astronauts were on board for the brief demonstration flight, which blasted off at 9 am (9 pm Singapore time) on a cloudy morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The gum-drop shaped Dragon launched with the help of eight SuperDraco rocket engines built into the white capsule's walls, accelerating from 0 to 100 miles per hour in one second and travelling over a mile in the first 20 seconds.

Mid-flight, at about 1,500 meters, the spacecraft jettisoned its trunk and three parachutes deployed to slow the descent of the Dragon capsule before it splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean.

The entire flight test was over in about one and a half minutes.

"This flight test (is) unlike any seen in Florida since the days of Apollo," said NASA commentator Rob Navias, referring to the US capsules that travelled to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

Abort capability has been a feature of other space capsules built by Russia, as well as on the US Mercury and Apollo missions, but those systems would only work shortly after launch.

The SpaceX abort feature "means Crew Dragon will have launch escape capability from the launch pad all the way to orbit," said the company website.

The US-made space shuttles were not designed to have an escape option for astronauts in flight. Seven people onboard were killed when the Challenger shuttle exploded after launch in 1986 and another seven died when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003.

The space shuttle program was retired in 2011 after three decades. Since then, the world's space travellers have had to rely on Russia's Soyuz capsules at a price of US$71 million ($93.98 million) per seat.

The first manned flight of the Dragon crew capsule is targeted for 2017. Already, a cargo-only version of the space capsule makes regular supply journeys to and from the International Space Station.

SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule is the only supply ship capable of returning to Earth intact. All others burn up on re-entry into the atmosphere.

The Dragon V2 - for version 2 - is based on the supply ship and is designed to carry crew.

Boeing is also making a crew vehicle, known as the CST-100, and its first piloted flight is scheduled for late 2017.

SpaceX said before the launch that the Dragon would fall into the Atlantic Ocean about 1.4 miles away from the launch pad.

The dummy on board was fixed with sensors to collect data on the gravitational force inside the spacecraft, and to make sure that humans could survive the experience.

"The test doesn't need to be perfect to be valuable," SpaceX said on its website. "Our primary objective is to capture as much data as possible."