Early Saturday morning, SpaceX plans to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida that will most likely break apart in midair just a few minutes after takeoff. The rocket’s demise is part of a planned test flight that’s supposed to demonstrate SpaceX’s ability to handle a catastrophic failure of one of its vehicles. If the test goes well, SpaceX will be closer than ever to putting people on its Falcon 9 rocket for the first time this year.
Known as the in-flight abort test, this is one of the last major milestones that SpaceX must meet as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program. It’s a government initiative aimed at developing new American-made spacecraft to launch NASA astronauts from the US once again. For the last six years, SpaceX has been developing a new capsule called the Crew Dragon for the program, designed to fly on top of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. As part of the development process, SpaceX has had to do a number of demonstrations to show that its vehicle is both safe and capable of doing the job.
Saturday’s test is all about showcasing SpaceX’s backup plan in the rare event that a trip to the ISS starts to go south. Let’s say one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets starts to break apart during the ascent to space. NASA wants to know that its astronauts riding inside the Crew Dragon can still be brought home safely, despite a malfunctioning rocket.
To save passengers during an emergency, SpaceX designed its Crew Dragon with an escape system. Embedded within the outer hull of the capsule are eight thrusters, called SuperDraco engines. If some kind of issue arises during flight, it will trigger the thrusters to fire. The engines will then carry the Crew Dragon up and away from the dangerous rocket. Once the capsule is far enough away, the Crew Dragon will deploy its four parachutes, and lower itself down gently into the Atlantic Ocean, where the crew will await rescue.
SpaceX has tested its emergency thrusters before, but this will be the first time the company tries the entire escape process midflight. About a minute and a half after the Falcon 9 launches, the Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco engines will fire and the capsule will separate from the rocket. At the same time, the Falcon 9’s main engines will stop firing, and the rocket will eventually fall back to Earth. As the Crew Dragon attempts a gentle landing in the ocean, the Falcon 9 will be torn apart as it descends into the water. The timing of the breakup depends on how windy it is on Saturday, as well as other factors like the rocket’s position, according to NASA. SpaceX has assembled a team of people to recover the debris from the rocket when the test is over. The Falcon 9 that’s meeting its end has already been to space and back three times before, making this fourth trip its last.