SpaceX capsule soars in 1st test of crew escape

Published 10:24 am Wednesday, May 6, 2015

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX chalked up another big test flight Wednesday, firing a capsule into the air to try out its new, super-streamlined launch escape system for astronauts.

No humans were on board for this brief, first-of-its-kind flight and the whole thing lasted barely 1 1/2 minutes. A dummy was the only passenger.

The Dragon capsule shot off a test stand, not a rocket, and flew up and then out over the Atlantic. Rocket engines on the capsule provided the thrust. Red and white parachutes popped open and lowered the capsule into the ocean, just offshore.

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“This flight test unlike any seen in Florida since the days of Apollo,” NASA spokesman Mike Curie, the TV commentator for the test, said after the capsule plopped into the Atlantic. Recovery boats and a barge moved in to retrieve the craft.

The California-based company led by billionaire Elon Musk aims to launch U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station as early as 2017. Boeing is designing its own crew capsule. NASA wants to make sure the commercial crew flights will be safe in an emergency, and is insisting on reliable escape systems.

There was no immediate word from SpaceX on how the test flight went, but it appeared, at least on TV, that everything operated more or less as planned. The plan was for the capsule to climb close to a mile high and come down about a mile offshore.

In the days leading up to this first major test of the escape system, SpaceX officials cautioned something might go wrong. The capsule could have been lost at sea or, worse, smashed down onto the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, from where it took off. A two-mile area was cleared of personnel before the test, just in case.