SpaceX just launched — and purposefully destroyed — a rocket for a key test

The "abort demonstration" assessed how well SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule can survive in the event of a catastrophic rocket failure.
Image: A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket engine self-destructs after jettisoning the Crew Dragon astronaut capsule during an in-flight abort test after lift of from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket engine self-destructs after jettisoning the Crew Dragon astronaut capsule during an in-flight abort test, a key milestone before flying humans in 2020 under NASA's commercial crew program, after lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Jan. 19, 2020.Joe Rimkus Jr / Reuters

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By Denise Chow

SpaceX intentionally destroyed a rocket shortly after its launch Sunday as part of a key safety test for its next-generation spacecraft.

The so-called in-flight abort demonstration, conducted at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, assessed how well SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which is designed to one day ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, can survive in the event of a catastrophic rocket failure.

The rocket lifted off at 10:30 a.m. ET and mimicked the trajectory of a launch to the space station, though there were no passengers aboard. The test was originally scheduled for Saturday, but scrubbed due to weather.

A little over one minute into the flight, the Crew Dragon capsule’s “launch escape” sequence was triggered. As part of this emergency protocol, the first-stage engines on the Falcon 9 rocket were shut down and a series of eight thrusters on the Crew Dragon capsule fired to propel the spacecraft away from the malfunctioning rocket.

Once the capsule’s thrusters shut down, the Crew Dragon’s four parachutes were deployed, easing the spacecraft to a landing in the Atlantic Ocean. This maneuver is designed to carry passengers a safe distance away from the rocket, should an emergency occur shortly after launch.

As part of Sunday’s test, U.S. Air Force and SpaceX personnel were on hand in the open ocean to practice what would happen during a real rescue operation to retrieve the capsule and its passengers.

After the Crew Dragon capsule separated from the rocket, the Falcon 9 booster was intentionally broken apart over the Atlantic, where separate crews will eventually retrieve the debris.

The in-flight abort demonstration is SpaceX’s last major test as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a partnership between the space agency and private aerospace companies to develop new American-made spacecraft to carry astronauts to the space station. SpaceX and Boeing both won contracts under this program, and their spacecraft could ease NASA’s reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets and capsules for space station flights.

SpaceX tested the Crew Dragon’s emergency thrusters in November, but this was the company’s first demonstration of the entire escape procedure.

The next milestone for the spacecraft will be a crewed flight to the space station. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have been selected to fly aboard the Crew Dragon on that flight, though the space agency has not yet announced a date for the flight.

Boeing completed the first uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner capsule in December, though the demonstration was cut short due to a glitch and the spacecraft did not reach the space station. NASA is conducting an investigation into the mishap and the agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, announced earlier this month that Boeing may be required to conduct an additional uncrewed flight to meet the Commercial Crew Program’s expectations.