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SpaceX passenger Dragon aces debut test run

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
May 6, 2015, 22:59 UTC

Sen—As advertised, Wednesday’s debut test flight of SpaceX's passenger spaceship was over in less than two minutes, with a successful 5.5-second thruster burn and smooth parachute landing in the Atlantic Ocean.

In between, the heavily instrumented capsule steered itself, coasted, jettisoned its trunk section, flipped over to position its heat shield and deployed two sets of parachutes, fulfilling all key maneuvers of the so-called “pad abort” test.

“This morning, a Crew Dragon test article completed a Pad Abort Test, the 1stcritical test in prep for human missions,” SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk posted on Twitter.

Three SpaceX boats were positioned in the ocean, east of the company’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch site, to recover the capsule, said NASA commentator Michael Curie.

There was no immediate word on the capsule’s condition.

The real payoff of the test will be in the analysis of data collected by 270 onboard sensors and from a dummy strapped into a seat in the capsule’s crew cabin.

SpaceX said it was looking to demonstrate the proper sequencing of the pad abort scenario—a challenge considering the very compressed timeline—as well as the ability of the capsule’s eight SuperDraco thrusters to process and apply real-time engineering data for steering.

The company also wants test data showing the capsule’s maximum altitude and distance from the launch site and data about heat, pressure and other internal and external forces and conditions the capsule experienced during flight.

“No matter what happens, we’re going to learn a lot,” Jon Cowart, a NASA Commercial Crew program manager, told reporters before the test.

“Every piece of data we gather moves us closer to our first crewed flights in 2017,” SpaceX added in a statement.

SpaceX is one of two companies hired by NASA to fly crews to the and from the International Space Station following the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. Since then, NASA has been dependent on Russia to fly its astronauts, at a cost that currently tops $63 million.

Boeing, the other company selected by NASA under the latest Commercial Crew contracts, plans to conduct its pad abort test next year.

NASA is requiring pad and launch abort systems on the new space taxis in an effort to improve safety. The space shuttles didn’t have pad abort capabilities, though a rudimentary escape system was added after the 1986 Challenger disaster.

“Essentially, it's kind of like an ejection seat in an airplane. You have the ability to leave the pad sitting in the capsule and the capsule would come off and land," NASA astronaut Eric Boe said during an interview on NASA TV.

SpaceX plans to refurbish the Dragon test vehicle and fly it again aboard a Falcon 9 rocket launching from California later this year to demonstrate a high-speed, high-altitude abort.

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The Dragon prototype descends under parachute, heading for its landing in the Atlantic Ocean after its pad abort test on May 6, 2015. Image credit: SpaceX