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SpaceX is just days away from shooting up a crew capsule to test a launch escape system designed to save astronauts' lives. Buster, the dummy, is already strapped in for Wednesday's nearly mile-high ride from Cape Canaveral, Florida. He'll be alone as the capsule is fired from a ground test stand and soars out over the Atlantic, then parachutes down.
"We've been planning this for a very, very, long time. A lot of folks (have been) putting a lot of effort into this. It is rocketry," Jon Cowart, NASA's Commercial Crew Program partner manager, said during a media briefing Friday. "It's really cool. You’ve worked very hard, you've done your calculations, you've done all the really nerdy things you get to go do. And now there's going to be some smoke and fire."
SpaceX is working to get astronauts launched from Cape Canaveral again, as is Boeing. NASA hired the two companies to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station to reduce its reliance on Russian rockets. The California-based SpaceX is aiming for a manned flight as early as 2017. It's already hauling groceries and other supplies to the space station via Dragon capsules; souped-up crew Dragons will be big enough to carry four or five — and possibly as many as seven — astronauts. NASA is insisting on a reliable launch abort system for crews — something its space shuttles lacked — in case of an emergency.
Wednesday's test is expected to last barely 1½ minutes. The capsule — rigged with sensors and cameras — is expected to soar more than 4,500 feet high and come down 6,000 feet offshore, due east. Buster will be subjected to four to 4½ times the force of Earth's gravity. SpaceX's Hans Koenigsmann, vice president for mission assurance, said the escape system is designed for use throughout a Dragon's climb to orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, giving astronauts the ability to save themselves all the way up. "Whatever happens to Falcon 9, you will be able to pull out the astronauts and land them safely on this crew Dragon," he said. "In my opinion, this will make it the safest vehicle that you can possibly fly." SpaceX plans an in-flight abort test sometime later this year from California.
— NBC News staff contributed to this report
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