Rocket startup SpaceX blasted a test dummy a mile into the sky early Wednesday in a crucial test of the company’s plan to launch humans into orbit.
The test capsule was launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral spaceport at 6am Pacific time. The flight lasted 90 seconds after which the craft’s red-and-white parachutes deployed and it gently splashed down in the Atlantic.
The test focused on the system designed to save astronauts’ lives by allowing them to escape the launch pad in the event of an explosion or other emergency during liftoff. While the actual effectiveness of such systems is questionable, as they have never been used in any manned mission, they are nonetheless a requirement for manned spaceflight according to NASA rules.
The 'launch abort system' includes eight rocket engines built into the capsule’s walls that can fire the module up and away from the pad. It is designed like an ejection seat for a fighter pilot, except in this case the capsule separates from the rest of the rocket.
The test dummy, just like those used in vehicle testing, was equipped with sensors to gather data on the forces experienced inside the capsule. Additional sensors, as well as cameras and microphones, were built into the capsule itself.
Last year, SpaceX and industry veteran Boeing each won contracts from NASA to bring astronauts to the International Space Station. The first launch with astronauts on board is planned for 2017 and would mark America's return to manned spaceflight. Presently our country has no manned space programs and relies on Russian rockets to bring American astronauts to space.
SpaceX is currently carrying cargo to the space station under a separate contract with NASA.