SpaceX's Pad Abort Test for Its Dragon Spaceship Is a Real Blast

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By Alan Boyle

The SpaceX rocket venture on Wednesday put its Dragon capsule's launch escape system for future astronauts through a successful first flight test — with a real dummy aboard.

"It was a great outcome," SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, told reporters afterward. "Had there been people on board, they would have been in great shape."

In a statement, NASA's Kathy Leuders congratulated the California-based company on "what appears to have been a successful test."

The pad abort test began at 9 a.m. ET with a six-second blast of the Dragon V2 spaceship's eight SuperDraco thrusters. The thrusters accelerated the unpiloted craft from zero to 100 mph (160 kilometers per hour) during the first 1.2 seconds of flight, and sent it about a mile (1.5 kilometers) above the test stand at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The Dragon's top speed in the air was clocked at 345 mph (555 kilometers per hour).

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SpaceX Graphic Shows the Test Trajectory

At the top of the ascent, the Dragon jettisoned a cylindrical "trunk" at the bottom of the conical spaceship — just as it would have in the event of a real launch-pad emergency. Then the craft unfurled its red-and-white parachutes and floated to a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, about 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) from the pad.

The whole affair took less than two minutes, and every second of it was captured on video. During a post-flight teleconference, Musk said one of the SuperDraco thrusters underperformed, but he considered that only a minor glitch. Meanwhile, boat crews worked to bring the Dragon back from the sea.

The test provided data about the launch escape system, which is a key component for the crew-capable version of the Dragon craft. SpaceX already is flying a robotic version of the capsule to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station — but the escape system will be required when the Dragon starts carrying astronauts for NASA, as early as 2017.

Here's What It's Like Inside SpaceX's New Dragon

The Boeing Co. is developing a different type of capsule, known as the CST-100, for NASA's use.

SpaceX's system represents a significant upgrade from the launch escape towers that were used during the space effort of the 1960s, in that it's integrated into the Dragon's thruster system. That means it can be used in the event of an emergency at any time during the ascent to orbit.

An instrument-laden crash-test dummy was placed inside the craft for Wednesday's test, along with weights that stood in for the crew members who would someday ride the Dragon.

SpaceX said that, contrary to previous reports, the dummy was not named Buster. "Buster the Dummy already works for a great show you may have heard of, called MythBusters," the company said in a preview of the launch. "Our dummy prefers to remain anonymous for the time being."