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On May 5, SpaceX tested its launch abort system: a set of powerful rockets on the Dragon space capsule that can pull the Dragon away from the Falcon rocket underneath in case of catastrophe.
SpaceX just released video taken from a camera on the Dragon capsule, and it’s pretty dang dramatic. Come along for the ride:
Whoa. SpaceX said the capsule went from 0 to 160 kilometers per hour in 1.2 seconds, which is an acceleration of four times Earth’s gravity. It reached a top speed of 550 kph, arcing nearly 1,200 meters into the air.
You can see the trunk jettisoned at 0:30 (in a real flight, this sits under the Dragon and contains unpressurized cargo and the capsule’s solar panels). At the time I wondered where the trunk landed after the test; from this it looks like it came down in the water; it looks to me the capsule was already past the shoreline when the trunk jettisoned.
Seconds later the drogue chutes deploy to stabilize the capsule, then the three main parachutes release. Weirdly, the video stops just before the capsule splashes down. Perhaps we’ll see more of that later.
This test was critically important: NASA requires any human-rated vehicle to pass stringent tests, including the ability to get astronauts away from the rocket stack in case of emergency. If SpaceX had failed this test, it would have been a major setback to getting Americans back into space on an American rocket. As it happens, things look to have gone pretty well.
There's also video of the test taken from cameras on the ground, and you can see just how fast the capsule blasted away from the pad.
The SuperDraco thrusters used for this test have double duty with Dragon; besides being there if needed in an emergency, they can be used on-orbit for maneuvering the capsule. SpaceX plans on being ready to put humans into space by 2017. They are also currently building the next generation Falcon Heavy rocket with plans for a test launch later this year.
Update, Friday, May 22, 2015, at 3 p.m.: Slate posted a review of a new biography of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. I also wrote about meeting Musk during a visit I made to the SpaceX rocket factory earlier this year.