CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Elon Musk’s SpaceX moved Sunday to within months of restoring NASA’s ability to launch people into space, successfully completing a key test of the emergency abort system of the spacecraft it is developing to fly NASA’s astronauts to the International Space Station.
NASA has been unable to send humans to space since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, but with SpaceX’s test, the agency said it could be sometime this spring when astronauts again would be lifting off from the same historic stretch of coastline here that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon.
Such an outcome would augur a new era of space exploration, one driven by private industry as well as NASA. Sunday’s successful test marked the culmination of years of work by SpaceX, which Musk founded in 2002 with the goal of flying humans routinely out of the atmosphere.
In a news conference after the mission, Musk said he was “super fired up” and said the mission was a significant and “surreal” milestone.
“I can’t believe we’ve gotten this far,” he said. “It’s just going to be wonderful to get astronauts back into orbit from American soil after almost a decade of not being able to do so. I think that’s super exciting.”
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine praised the company, and the progress it has made, but said the coming weeks and months would be crucial.
“Make no mistake there’s a lot left to do,” he said, noting there were significant parachute tests yet to come and that the teams still needed to review the data from Sunday’s so-called in-flight abort test.
Sunday’s test began shortly after a Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from a launch site here at 10:30 a.m. amid concerns that heavy winds and incoming clouds would scrub the mission. But nearly 90 seconds after the booster blasted off, the engines of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft ignited, shooting the capsule off like a champagne cork at more than twice the speed of sound, while the booster came apart midflight in a fiery spectacle miles above the Florida Space Coast.
The capsule landed softly in the Atlantic Ocean nine minutes after liftoff, floating down under a quartet of parachutes, completing a test designed to show that the astronauts would be flown to safety if there ever were a problem with the rocket.
“It looks like a great test,” SpaceX’s John Insprucker said during the live broadcast, as cheering broke out at SpaceX headquarters in California.
In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop spacecraft capable of flying humans to the space station, a bold bet by the agency to outsource human spaceflight to the private sector. Since then, both companies’ progress has been hampered by technical problems and funding issues that have delayed the first flights with crews by years. And the agency has been forced to continue to rely on Russia for rides to the space station at a cost of as much as $84 million a seat.
Last spring, a Dragon capsule exploded during a test of its abort engines. The company blamed a faulty valve that caused a propellant leak. It has also struggled with its parachutes, but SpaceX has moved to a new design that seemed to work well Sunday.
Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew program manager, said the agency was “very, very happy with the flawless execution” of the parachutes.
Boeing also has had problems with its Starliner spacecraft. During a test of its abort system last year, one of its three main parachutes failed to deploy. And a test of its Starliner capsule in December was cut short when a software problem prevented the spacecraft from docking with the space station as intended.
Sunday’s test was the last major hurdle SpaceX needed to pass before being allowed to fly NASA’s astronauts in what’s known as the Commercial Crew Program. The company hopes to fly its first mission with astronauts within a few months, but first it needs to analyze the data from the mission and go through safety checks.
Musk said the test was “picture perfect,” with the spacecraft shooting about a mile away from the disabled booster “in a matter of seconds.” But even with that extreme acceleration, he said, the vehicle experienced forces only about 3 1/2 times gravity, far less than the seven Gs that a Russian Soyuz spacecraft endured when it experienced a real abort in late 2018.
The test also represented another significant step by a growing commercial space industry that is trying to end governments’ long-held monopoly on space activities. Bridenstine said he welcomed the new dynamic since it would help NASA in the future, and and even at one point made a pitch for private astronauts to sign up to fly with SpaceX.
“We’re on the cusp of commercializing low-Earth orbit,” he said. “I want to see large amount of activities involving humans in space.”
It’s unclear when Boeing might fly its first mission with crews. The company is still investigating what caused its onboard computer to be 11 hours off, a problem that prevented its engines from firing. NASA has said it is looking into whether it should force the company to fly another test mission without crews before allowing astronauts on board.
In a recent blog post, Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said that even though docking with the space station is part of Boeing’s contract, that requirement could be waived.
“Although docking was planned, it may not have to be accomplished prior to the crew demonstration,” he wrote. “Boeing would need NASA’s approval to proceed with a test with astronauts on board.”
Lueders said during a briefing last week that SpaceX still has a few tests of its parachute system to complete. If they go well, she said, the company could conceivably launch its first mission with astronauts in March.
In the press briefing Sunday, Musk said that the first flight would actually be a little bit later, but sometime in the second quarter of this year.
“To be back in the saddle again, and to be launching frequently again is something that matters to America and to people worldwide,” Musk said.
Veteran NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who would be on SpaceX’s first test mission with people, said they were pleased with the outcome of the test. Both are married to other astronauts and have children, and said the successful test gave them confidence that they’d be safe in case anything went wrong.
“Our families were certainly watching from back home,” Hurley said. “Obviously they are keenly interested.”
They added that their guest lists for their upcoming flight were due Friday