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SpaceX and NASA are getting ready for a key test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon commercial crew spacecraft on Saturday, and this should be the last major milestone that SpaceX has to pass in terms of demonstration missions before actual crew climb aboard the spaceship for a trip to the International Space Station. Starting at 8 AM ET (5 AM PT), a launch window opens during which SpaceX will hopefully perform what’s called an “in-flight abort” test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 launch vehicle, to demonstrate how its safety systems would protect astronauts on board in the unlikely event of an unexpected incident during a real crew flight.

The plan for this mission is to launch the Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 — in this case, one that’s using a refurbished booster stage previously flown on three prior missions. This will be the Falcon 9’s last flight, however, as the plan includes loss of the rocket this time around instead of a controlled landing. The launch is intentionally being terminated early — just after the rocket achieves its “Max Q” point, or the moment during its flight when it’s under maximum atmospheric stress, at about 84 seconds post-liftoff.

At that point, the rocket will be about 19 kilometres (roughly 62,000 feet) above the surface of the Earth, and about four kilometres (2.5 miles) from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX has rigged the Dragon spacecraft’s launch escape system to automatically trigger at this point, which will separate the crew spacecraft from the Falcon and propel it away from the rocket very quickly in order to get it to a safe distance to protect any future passengers. After around five minutes past launch, the Dragon will deploy its parachute system, and then at around 10 minutes after it should splash down in the Atlantic Ocean between 3 and 3.5 km (roughly 2 miles) from shore.

After that, crews will recover the Dragon capsule from the ocean, and return it to Cape Canaveral, where SpaceX will study the spacecraft, including human-sized dummies acting as passengers and sensors within to monitor what happened in the cabin during the test. They’ll use this to ideally show that the abort process works as designed and will protect astronauts on board the spacecraft in case of any emergency that results in an early mission termination.

In addition to the in-flight abort system, SpaceX and NASA are also using this mission to prepare for crewed flight in a number of other ways. Today, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will crew the first piloted mission hopefully later this year, ran through a dry run of what they would experience in a live mission. They donned space suits and walked the transom that connects the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 to its launchpad support structure, as NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine noted on Twitter.

The test will not involve any attempt to recover the rocket, as mentioned, and SpaceX Crew Mission Management Director Benji Reed said during a press conference today that they do anticipate some kind of “ignition” event with the Falcon 9’s second stage, which could possibly be large enough to be seen from the ground, he said. SpaceX crews will be on standby to recover as much as possible from the rocket wreckage, which will be useful to study, and they’ll also be on hand to minimize any potential environmental impact from the test.

This test was originally scheduled for roughly six months ago, but SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule intended for the mission was destroyed during an unexpected incident while test firing its engines. SpaceX and NASA investigated that explosion, and are now confident that they understand the cause of that incident, and have taken steps to ensure that a similar problem doesn’t happen again. The Crew Dragon being used now for Saturday’s test was originally intended to be the one used for actually flying astronauts, and another capsule is currently in development to serve that purpose.

SpaceX’s launch window for this test opens at 8 AM ET tomorrow, but spans four hours, and Reed said it could actually extend longer tomorrow if need be. NASA Commercial Crew program manager Kathy Leuders explained today that it’s crucial that not only launch conditions, but also recovery conditions, are optimal for the purposes of this test, so both will play a factor in when exactly they launch. Unlike with launches actually designed to reach a specific orbit, timing doesn’t have to be quite as on the nose, so there’s more flexibility in terms of making the decision to proceed or stand down. SpaceX has backup opportunities on both Sunday and Monday should they be required.

We’ll have a live stream and live coverage of the test starting tomorrow morning, so check back early Saturday. The stream will kick off around 15 minutes prior to the scheduled opening of the launch window, so at around 7:45 AM ET.


TechCrunch

Boeing launched its Starliner CST-100 commercial crew spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time on Friday morning in an uncrewed test, and while an error with the onboard mission clock meant that the Starliner didn’t reach its target orbit as intended and subsequently didn’t have enough fuel on board to actually meet up and dock with the ISS, it’s still doing as much testing as it can to complete other mission objectives. One of those objectives is landing the Starliner spacecraft, and Boeing and NASA have scheduled that landing for Sunday at 7:57 AM EST (4:57 AM PST).

The landing will take place at White Sands, New Mexico, and will involve a controlled de-orbit and descent of the Starliner capsule. The spacecraft will begin its de-orbit burn at 7:23 AM EST if all goes to plan, and NASA will begin a live broadcast of the entire landing attempt starting at 6:45 AM EST (3:45 AM PST) on Sunday morning if you want to tune in to the stream embedded below.

Boeing and NASA held a press conference today to provide updates about the mission status after the unplanned mission timer incident on Friday. Boeing SVP of Space and Launch Jim Chilton said during the conference that the team has managed to successfully run a number of its test objective with the mission despite the setback, including extending the docking system to see that it performs as expected, and testing the abort system on board the crew capsule.

The landing is another key test, and could even be more crucial to crew safety in terms of its execution. Both NASA and Boeing have said that were astronauts on board the Starliner during this mission, the mission clock timer incident that occurred would not have put them in any actual danger at any time. Problems with the automated landing sequence would be a different story, potentially – though astronauts are trained to do everything manually in case of any issues encountered while they’re actually in the spacecraft.

Should anything warrant skipping the first attempt at landing tomorrow, NASA and Boeing have a back-up landing opportunity about eight hours after the first. Tune in tomorrow to see how this spacecraft, which will still hopefully carry its first human passengers next year, does with its landing maneuvers.


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