MELBOURNE, Fla. – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on Sunday, ultimately sacrificing itself to test a Crew Dragon capsule's lifesaving abort capabilities.
The 10:30 a.m. liftoff from pad 39A looked like any other mission: Nine Merlin main engines roared through a thin layer of stubborn clouds, taking the capsule to about 55,000 feet in altitude and then abruptly cutting thrust.
That preplanned maneuver to turn the engines off essentially told Crew Dragon's onboard computers that something had gone catastrophically wrong with the mission. If the capsule didn't abort, any crew – had they been on board – would have been at risk.
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So 85 seconds after liftoff, Crew Dragon fired its powerful SuperDraco thrusters, propelling it away from Falcon 9, which quickly began to tumble. Just 11 seconds after that separation, Falcon 9 broke into a fireball over the Atlantic Ocean.
But the booster's fireworks weren't over: A second fireball followed suit when its remnants crashed into the ocean. The debris will be picked up by recovery teams, but if any makes it ashore, beachgoers should stay away and immediately call 866-623-0234.
Crew Dragon, meanwhile, flew off at 1,700 mph to achieve an altitude of more than 130,000 feet before reorienting itself for parachute deployment and splashdown. Just nine-and-a-half minutes after liftoff from pad 39A, Crew Dragon was back on Earth and waiting for recovery teams staffed by the Air Force, SpaceX, and NASA.
"Another amazing milestone is complete for our very soon-to-be project to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttle," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a post-launch briefing at Kennedy Space Center on Sunday. "By all accounts, this was a very successful test."
The in-flight abort was the last major milestone SpaceX had to achieve before launching astronauts from U.S. soil to the International Space Station. After data reviews, more parachute testing, and other verifications, Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed the first crewed flight could occur sometime in the second quarter of this year.
The hardware for that flight, known as Demo-2, should arrive at Kennedy Space Center by late February or early March for its pad 39A liftoff. Onboard will be astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley for a stay of to-be-determined length at the space station.
Musk, who also attended the post-launch conference at Kennedy Space Station, said it was a "picture-perfect" mission.
"It went as well as we could possibly expect," Musk said. "This is a reflection of the dedication and hard work of SpaceX and NASA teams to achieve this goal. I'm super fired up."
At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 40, meanwhile, SpaceX teams are still slated to launch yet another Falcon 9 rocket Tuesday on a mission to deliver 60 Starlink internet communications satellites to low-Earth orbit. That launch is expected at 11:59 a.m.
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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: SpaceX Sunday launch: Rocket explodes after liftoff as planned