SpaceX’s test of Crew Dragon’s Emergency Launch-Escape System has been Completed Successfully

SpaceX successfully completed emergency escape test of Crew Dragon, a spacecraft that will be applied for crew transportation. One of the main peculiarities of the launch-escape system is that it is integrated as a set of four side-mounted thruster pods with two 3D-printed SuperDraco engines each.

SpaceX has completed another step in order to fully certify their Crew Dragon manned spacecrafts by conducting an in-flight abort test. The test was conducted in real-flight conditions, the only difference is that this particular flight was uncrewed. Even though the Falcon 9 rocket that carried the capsule had to be sacrificed for test purposes, the capsule was successfully loaded onto a recovery ship after splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. Two auxiliary and four main parachutes provided safe landing, while eight side-mounted 3D-printed SuperDraco engines separated the capsule from transporting rocket. 

Russian Soyuz spacecraft main abort mode is provided via a jettisonable emergency escape head section. In contrast, the Crew Dragon had been designed with a built-in engines for several reasons. Let’s start with the reason that is no longer relevant and comes from the initial project origins. The Crew Dragon project risen from the Red Dragon project, that aimed to provide opportunities for unmanned flights to Mars via cargo spacecrafts. Mars’ atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s and the parachute landing there is very ineffective and is likely to fail, so the spacecraft landing would have had to be carried out by means of engines in order to be controlled. Elon Musk decided to give up on the project in favor of developing a highly-specialized Mars exploration ship.

Another reason is that SpaceX considers the possibility of controlled landing after conducting the flights in near-Earth environment. In comparison with unmanned spacecraft landing, the safety measures for landing with crew on board are stricter. Therefore, SpaceX decided to swap the auxiliary and main landing methods for the time being. The landing process will be carried out by parachutes and can be supported by engines, if necessary. Moreover, the built-in engines can be re-used with the spacecraft itself, as compared to Soyuz abort system that features separation of modules. The above-mentioned reason also highlights the idea of reusability, the foundation of most SpaceX projects. Another important reason is a possibility that modules may collide and crash with each other after separation. 

SuperDraco are hydrazine engines able to produce 73 kilonewtons (16,000 lbf) of thrust each, that are used for launch aborts. The spacecraft is equipped with four power units, each supplied with two SuperDraco cruise engines and four Draco thrusters used for orbital maneuvering. One of the engines’ distinctive features is that they are mainly made of 3D-printed components. The components are manufactured from fire-resistant nickel-chromium-based superalloys, using a process of selective laser sintering. With regards to that, SpaceX can be considered a pioneer of integration of 3D-printed details in a mass production of launch vehicles and spacecrafts.

On 20 April 2019, the Crew Dragon capsule used in the Crew Dragon Demo-1 mission was destroyed in an explosion during static fire testing at the Landing Zone 1 facility. A week and a half later, the SpaceX representative announced that the explosion was caused by malfunctions of fuel systems. The explosion happened during the final countdown, several seconds prior to ignition command. Because of tanks leakage, the system got over-pressurized before firing and a check valve was damaged, leading to explosion. Since the destroyed capsule had been scheduled for use in the upcoming in-flight abort test, the explosion and investigation delayed that test and the subsequent crewed orbital test. The latest SpaceX’s testing, however, turned out to be a great success. 

The full video is available below (emergency capsule separation at 19:20):

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