NASA, SpaceX prepare for Falcon 9 rocket to explode over the Atlantic

To test its Crew Dragon's ability to escape an emergency, SpaceX must make a sacrifice.

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Eric Mack
2 min read

In November, SpaceX completed the static fire engine tests of the Crew Dragon ahead of its launch escape demonstration, known as the in-flight abort test.


If you've gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet, perhaps it's no surprise you have to blow up a few space vehicles to get to space. SpaceX and NASA are preparing for the latest trial of the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft, and the in-flight abort test is likely going to lead to the destruction of a Falcon 9 rocket in the process.

That test has been pushed back a week, to Jan. 18, to allow "additional time for spacecraft processing," NASA said Monday. The goal of the test is to demonstrate the Dragon's emergency escape system before NASA gives the final thumbs-up for the craft to begin ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the agency's Commercial Crew program.

Watch this: SpaceX's Crew Dragon launches to the ISS

While much has been made what will happen to Crew Dragon during the test -- it will separate from the Falcon 9, fire its SuperDraco engines to get away from the rocket and parachute to an ocean landing -- there's been less of a focus on the fate of the Falcon 9 rocket that will enable the process.

It's likely to undergo what SpaceX fans refer to tongue-in-cheek as a "rapid scheduled disassembly." In other words, it's going to break apart and/or explode over the Atlantic Ocean.

According to the final environmental assessment for the test filed with the Federal Aviation Administration, a Falcon 9 carrying the Crew Dragon will launch from Florida's Kennedy Space Center and fly for about 88 seconds before the test is initiated. Once the Dragon separates from the Falcon 9 first and second stages, the rocket is expected to become uncontrollable and break apart.

The Crew Dragon's development process previously faced a "rapid unscheduled disassembly" when a leak caused one of the capsules to unexpectedly explode during a ground test last year. 

The hope is actually that this planned disassembly is also a fiery affair, so that most of the Falcon 9's remaining fuel is consumed in one big explosion in the sky rather than ending up in the ocean. SpaceX does allow for the possibility, which it estimates at less than 1 percent, that the rocket could fall to the ocean intact. In that case, the company said, an even bigger explosion could result from the impact, hopefully consuming all the fuel in the process. 

SpaceX said it plans to fish all the floating debris from the explosion out of the water. 

When it all goes down, most eyes and cameras will be trained on the Crew Dragon's ability to escape the conflagration and safely land in the water. But the most dramatic part of the test may come with the fate of the Falcon 9.

NASA and SpaceX are both expected to offer a live video stream of the test, currently set for 8 a.m. ET/5 a.m. PT on Jan. 18.