By Jeffrey Kluger
May 6, 2015

NASA flew a teeny-tiny, 90-second, unmanned mission this morning—and you should care about it a lot. Here’s why.

The flying object that lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 9 a.m. EDT and splashed down about a mile away in the Atlantic at 9:01:30 after climbing just 5,000 ft. (1,500 m) was a test version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Dragon has been making unmanned cargo trips to the International Space Station since 2015 and will start carrying crews in 2017. But carrying crews is an order of magnitude more dangerous than carrying equipment and supplies, and that means a great many additional safety drills. One of the most important of those is what’s known as the pad abort test.

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Liftoff is easily among the most dangerous parts of any space mission, when the controlled bomb that is the rocket roars to life with a pod full of astronauts sitting atop it. Ever since the days of the Mercury program—when there was just a single crewman aboard—NASA knew it needed a way to get that pod out of harm’s way if the booster seemed set to blow. And so spacecraft were equipped with escape towers, little scaffolds at the very tip of the rocket stack outfitted with mini-rockets that would ignite at the first sign of trouble and pull the capsule up and away.

That was the system that was tested today, with no booster involved and nothing but the 20-ft. (6 m) capsule and trunk on the launch pad. While that didn’t make for terribly dramatic TV, it was, in its own way, a very dramatic mission—if only because of the sleek engineering at work. SpaceX’s escape system does away with the tower part of the escape tower, embedding its mini-rockets into the base of the capsule itself. When they ignite, they thus push the capsule from below as opposed to pulling it from above, which provides greater stability.

It takes eight engines to lift the 8-ton vehicle, each producing 15,000 lbs. (6,800 kg) of thrust. The collective 120,000 lbs. (54,000 kg) is about twice the oomph of the Redstone rocket that carried America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, on his popgun suborbital flight in 1961.

The Dragon that flew today was stuffed with sensors to measure thrust, temperature, structural stresses and more, as well as a microphone to record internal acoustics and a camera to beam back on-board visuals. It also carried a human dummy, nicknamed Buster, to determine the g-loads on a passenger.

The eyeblink mission ended with the Dragon descending under three red and white parachutes into the ocean, just as a real Dragon mission will—and just as the old Apollo spacecraft did. Indeed, NASA TV made something of a point of comparing this splashdown to the triumphant returns long-ago crews made from the moon. That analogy may have been overwrought, but only a little. Ever since the last shuttle flew, the U.S. has had no spacecraft capable of getting astronauts to space. Today’s tiny flight was a big step back.

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