On Sunday, one of SpaceX’s 230-foot-tall Falcon 9 rockets broke apart and exploded into a fireball about 84 seconds after launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
On any other day, such a catastrophe might be a tragedy. But during a post-launch press briefing, the faces of Musk and NASA executives beamed with smiles: the rocket failure was an intentional sacrifice designed put Crew Dragon, a new commercial spaceship for NASA astronauts, through an ultimate safety test.
SpaceX cut the rocket’s engines while it was traveling at around twice the speed of sound. At that moment, the Crew Dragon detached, fired its own thrusters, and sped away from impending doom. The gumdrop-shaped ship landed in the ocean under the sails of four giant parachutes about 9 minutes after launch.
Musk described the in-flight abort mission as “risky” prior to its launch because the flight was high, fast, and “pushing the envelope in so many ways.”
After Crew Dragon’s splash down, though, NASA and SpaceX officials described it as an apparent total success.
“As far as we can tell thus far it was a picture-perfect mission. It went as well as one could possibly expect,” Musk said during a televised NASA press briefing shortly after Sunday’s launch. “I’m super fired up. This is great. It’s really great. We’re looking forward to the next step.”
Kathy Lueders, who manages NASA’s Commercial Crew Program — the agency’s effort to hire companies like SpaceX and Boeing to launch astronauts — couldn’t contain her excitement either.
“I’m super fired up, too. It’s really exciting,” Lueders said at the briefing. “My boss told me, ‘Hey, don’t talk about launch vehicle launches and exciting at the same time.’ But I think you guys saw today that it was a very exciting test.”
Lueders’ boss, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, also attended the briefing. The Donald Trump-appointed agency head chose to cast the meaning of SpaceX’s successful in-flight abort test into a larger, more urgent context.
“Another amazing milestone is complete for our very soon-to-be project, which is launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles,” Bridenstine said. “We’re very grateful.”
SpaceX could launch its first-ever human passengers in April
With the in-flight abort test complete, SpaceX is tantalizingly close to a goal that Musk has dreamed about since forming the company in 2002: Launching people into space.
As it stands now, those space flyers will be NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Both are spaceflight veterans and deeply involved in SpaceX’s effort to make Crew Dragon a human-rated vehicle and possibly launch it this year.
Since the last space shuttle launched and landed in July 2011, NASA has had no US rocket-and-spaceship system to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station, a roughly $150 billion laboratory that orbits Earth every 90 minutes.
NASA originally hoped to end its American spaceflight gap as soon as 2015, but a government-designed rocket program was canceled. SpaceX and Boeing also missed their 2017 target of completing tests required to fly astronauts. So for the past nine years, the agency has had to shell out billions of dollars to Russia to buy seats aboard that nation’s Soyuz rocket system.
Wayne Hale, an aerospace engineering consultant and retired NASA space shuttle program manager, previously told Business Insider that the larger space community is eager to the US return to human spaceflight.
“Most of us are just way past ready for this to happen. It has taken a lot longer than anybody thought,” Hale said. “This year we really need to do it. It really needs to be done.”
In late 2019, Bridenstine expressed similar frustration about the delays in a tweet targeted at Musk and SpaceX. But the two soon made amends and vowed to move the program forward as quickly yet safely as possible.
“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,” Musk told reporters after the press briefing. “I think that’s just super exciting.”
SpaceX is not ready to pull off that feat just yet, though. Musk and others said the company needs to recover the space capsule, inspect it, and review a lot of data recorded during the mission.
“It looked beautiful. We all loved watching it,” Bridenstine said of the test launch. “But now the work begins for evaluating everything that we’re going to learn from this test.”
One item SpaceX checked off its list was another full demonstration of a new parachute system. The company’s prior parachute designs hit some snags during more strenuous tests, so NASA for better ones. Bridenstine and Lueders said a couple more parachute tests remain before the agency will approve them for crewed flight.
In March, SpaceX completed an uncrewed demonstration flight of Crew Dragon to the space station called Demo-1. But Musk said the company won’t fly anyone inside the new spaceship until “every stone has been turned over three or four times.”
Asked when that might happen, Musk indicated April would be the earliest time Behnken and Hurley might fly in their crewed demonstration mission, called Demo-2.
“We’re highly confident the hardware will be ready in Q1, most likely end of February but no later than March,” Musk said. “It appears probable that the first crewed launch would occur in the second quarter.”
Boeing is also looking to launch its CST-100 Starliner spaceship for NASA astronauts as soon as possible. However, the company is still working to understand a clock error that caused its first uncrewed launch toward the space station to veer wildly off-course.
Watch SpaceX’s spaceship escape and its rocket explode
This animation shows the Crew Dragon successfully separating and flying away from its doomed Falcon 9 rocket ride.
Shortly after the Falcon 9’s engines were shut down and Crew Dragon escaped, the rocket succumbed to extreme drag, broke up, and exploded into a fireball.