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Will 3D printed SuperDraco engines stand up to Crew Dragon’s launch escape test? [update: yes]

Watch SpaceX conduct key test toward manned missions

Before it can conduct manned missions to the ISS, the Moon, Mars and Beyond, SpaceX has to prove that its Crew Dragon capsule has what it takes to keep astronauts safe during the flight. One last key hurdle in this endeavor is to test the Crew Dragon’s built-in escape system. The launch escape test – which relies on the capsule’s 8 3D printed SuperDraco engines – was [update] scheduled for Sunday, January 19th. You can watch it again below.

There are two approaches to such escape systems. As Space.com explains, the spacecraft of the Mercury and Apollo eras, as well as the Russian Soyuz capsule that astronauts ride in today, relied on a rocket that pulled the spacecraft away from its launch vehicle. In contrast, both the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner use a built-in system to push the spacecraft to safety.

Embedded within the outer hull of the Dragon capsule are eight engines called SuperDracos, which were among the first engines to ever be 3D printed by Space X to ensure lightweight and the unique capabilities required. If the vehicle’s computer senses that something is amiss during flight, it will trigger these thrusters to fire. Then, the SuperDracos will push the Crew Dragon up and away from the rocket. Once the capsule is at a safe distance from the troubled rocket, the Crew Dragon will deploy its parachutes and land in the Atlantic Ocean, where recovery vessels will retrieve the capsule and the crew.

launch escape

SpaceX’s in-flight test of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities launched from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This test, which did not have NASA astronauts on board the spacecraft, successfully demonstrated Crew Dragon’s ability to reliably carry crew to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on the ascent.

In March 2019, SpaceX completed an end-to-end test flight of Crew Dragon without NASA astronauts onboard, making Dragon the first American spacecraft to autonomously dock with the International Space Station and safely return to Earth.

The SuperDraco engine firing during a test.

For this test, Falcon 9’s ascent trajectory mimicked a Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station to best match the physical environments the rocket and spacecraft will encounter during a normal ascent. However, SpaceX configured Crew Dragon to intentionally trigger a launch escape after Max Q, the moment of peak mechanical stress on the rocket.

Following Crew Dragon’s separation, Falcon 9 aerodynamically broke up offshore over the Atlantic Ocean. Breakup time varies due to a number of factors, including winds and expected minor variations in vehicle attitudes and positions. A dedicated team of SpaceX Falcon 9 recovery personnel was staged about 32 Km offshore and ready to recover debris immediately after breakup.

That little white dot that the red arrow is pointing to is the Crew Dragon after successfully detaching from the rocket’s stages.

SpaceX’s in-flight demonstration of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities will provide valuable data toward NASA certifying the spacecraft to begin carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, I have built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, I spent 12 years in the United States, where I received my Bachelor of Arts undergraduate degree. As a journalist covering the tech industry - especially the videogame industry - for over 10 years, I began covering the AM industry specifically in 2013, as blogger. In 2016 I co-founded London-based 3D Printing Business Media Ltd. (now 3dpbm) which operates in marketing, editorial, and market analysis & consultancy services for the additive manufacturing industry. 3dpbm publishes 3D Printing Business Directory, the largest global directory of companies related to 3DP, and leading news and insights websites 3D Printing Media Network and Replicatore. I am also a Senior Analyst for leading US-based firm SmarTech Analysis focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets.

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