After Falcon 9 Launch Failure, How Will SpaceX Keep Astronauts Safe?

posted: 06/29/15
by: Irene Klotz for Discovery News
Falcon 9 rocket liftoff

In the video of the fireball that engulfed SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket Sunday, a little capsule, still intact, can be seen falling through the sky, a poignant reminder that rocket explosions can be survivable.

That's an important and painful lesson NASA learned following the loss of two space shuttles and 14 astronauts, one that it is incorporating into the next generation of human spaceship currently under development.

The Dragon capsule that flew aboard the ill-fated Falcon rocket Sunday is nearly the same as one SpaceX is designing to fly people. Crew Dragon, however, will have an escape system that will enable the capsule to fly away from an exploding rocket and parachute to safety.

Last month, SpaceX demonstrated how the system would work in an emergency on the launch pad. During the test, which lasted less than two minutes, a Dragon capsule fired its eight engines to catapult itself off a simulated Falcon 9 rocket and climb into the sky over the Atlantic Ocean at a peak speed of 345 mph.

A more ambitious test, slated for next year, will take place aboard an actual Falcon rocket, at about the same point in the flight as when Sunday's accident occurred.

The Falcon 9 blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 10:21 a.m. EDT on a mission to deliver a cargo ship to the International Space Station for NASA.

The rocket had passed the moment of maximum aerodynamic force -- referred to as "Max-Q" -- when ground controllers lost contact with the booster. It exploded about 2 minutes, 20 seconds after liftoff, creating a shower of debris that rained down into the ocean, northeast of SpaceX's Cape Canaveral, Florida, launch site.

Ground controllers received some signals from Dragon after the rocket broke apart, indicating it survived the explosion somewhat intact, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told reporters after the accident.

During the in-flight abort test, SpaceX plans to simulate a mid-air accident, prompting the Dragon capsule to automatically fire its eight Draco engines, positioned around the capsule's circumference, and fly away.

Boeing, which is building a second space taxi for NASA, plans a similar test in 2017 of its CST-100 abort system.

Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said Sunday's accident should not impact NASA's ongoing Commercial Crew program, which is aimed at breaking Russia's monopoly on space station crew ferry flights before the end of 2017.

"My concerns are only the natural knee-jerk reaction by some. The philosophy of having two developers is a wise one," Stallmer wrote in an email to Discovery News.

SpaceX is focusing on a problem with the Falcon rocket's upper-stage engine as the likely cause of Sunday's accident.

Shotwell said expects the Falcon to be grounded for several months while an investigation is underway.

Sunday's anomaly can be seen here in a NASA TV launch video:

This post originally appeared on Discovery News


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