2020 a Busy Year for Suborbital Launches

New Shepard landing on the pad in West Texas on October 13, 2020, with the NASA Lunar Landing Sensor Demo onboard. (Credit: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Suborbital launch used to be a sleepy field that rarely attracted much public attention. Let’s face it, atmospheric research and student experiments are not front-page news. Sounding rockets don’t have the majesty and power of a Falcon 9 or Atlas V.

In recent years, exciting new entrants in the field and widespread streaming of launches have made suborbital flights exciting. Last year saw important suborbital flight tests by SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and Skyrora that garnered worldwide interest.


SpaceX Says Nitrogen Tetroxide Leak Resulted in Destruction of Crew Dragon Vehicle

An instrumented mannequin sit in the Crew Dragon spacecraft for the Demo-1 mission. (Credit: SpaceX)

HAWTHORNE, Calif. (SpaceX PR) — On Saturday, April 20, 2019 at 18:13 UTC, SpaceX conducted a series of static fire engine tests of the Crew Dragon In-Flight Abort test vehicle on a test stand at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.


SpaceX Crew Dragon Anomaly Occurred During Super Drago Static Fire

NASA has released the following statement from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine:

The NASA and SpaceX teams are assessing the anomaly that occurred today during a part of the Dragon Super Drago Static Fire Test at SpaceX Landing Zone 1 in Florida. This is why we test. We will learn, make the necessary adjustments, and safely move forward with our Commercial Crew Program.

SpaceX has been scheduled to conduct an in-flight abort test using the Super Drago engines in June. That test would use the same Crew Dragon spacecraft that successfully flew to the International Space Station last month.

A flight test to the space station with crew would follow in July. Both those flights could be delayed depending upon the outcome of the investigation into today’s anomaly.

UPDATE NO. 1, 5:53 pm PDT: Source at the Cape says the Crew Dragon that flew to ISS last month was destroyed in an explosion. In-flight abort and flight test to ISS scheduled for June and July, respectively, have been postponed indefinitely.

UDPATE NO. 2, 6:08 pm PDT: Some uncertainty about which spacecraft was involved. Will update.

UPDATE NO. 3, 8:35 am PDT: Yeah, looks like the initial report was accurate. Appears to be the DM-1 spacecraft that flew to station.

Crew Dragon Propulsion System Completes Development Testing

SuperDraco hot fires (Credit: SpaceX)
SuperDraco hot fires (Credit: SpaceX)

McGREGOR, Texas (NASA PR) — The propulsion system SpaceX would use to power its Crew Dragon out of danger has been test-fired 27 times as the company refines the design for the demands of operational missions carrying astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX evaluated the system utilizing various thrust cycles on a test stand at its McGregor, Texas, rocket development facility.


Video of SpaceX SuperDrago Hot Fire

Video Caption: SuperDracos will power the Crew Dragon spacecraft’s revolutionary launch escape system, the first of its kind. Should an emergency occur during launch, eight SuperDraco engines built into Dragon’s side walls will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety.

SpaceX has test-fired SuperDraco engines 27 times as we refine the design for the demands of operational missions carrying astronauts to the International Space Station.

SpaceX Launches 3D-Printed Part to Space

Falcon 9 launch (Credit: SpaceX)
Falcon 9 launch (Credit: SpaceX)

HAWTHORNE, Calif. (SpaceX PR) — Through 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, robust and high-performing rocket parts can be created and offer improvements over traditional manufacturing methods. SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft more reliable, robust and efficient than ever before.


SpaceX Completes Qualification of SuperDraco Engines

SuperDraco engine test firing. (Credit: SpaceX)
SuperDraco engine test firing. (Credit: SpaceX)

Thruster to Power Revolutionary Launch Escape System on Dragon Spacecraft

HAWTHORNE, Calif. (SpaceX PR) – Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) announced today that it has completed qualification testing for the SuperDraco thruster, an engine that will power the Dragon spacecraft’s launch escape system and enable the vehicle to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.

The qualification testing program took place over the last month at SpaceX’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. The program included testing across a variety of conditions including multiple starts, extended firing durations and extreme off-nominal propellant flow and temperatures.


NASA PIT Crew to Witness SpaceX SuperDraco Abort Engine Test

SpaceX Super Draco hot fire. (Credit: SpaceX)
SpaceX SuperDraco hot fire. (Credit: SpaceX)

CCP Spotlight on Development

The NASA Partner Integration Team, called a PIT Crew, working with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to help develop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft combination recently talked with SpaceX representatives about its spacecraft propulsion and parachute systems.

Later this month, the PIT Crew will travel to McGregor, Texas, for a SuperDraco abort engine test. Plans call for eight SuperDracos to be built into the sidewalls of the Dragon spacecraft, allowing a crew to escape from danger at any point of a launch.

For more information about NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and its partners, click on www.nasa.gov/commercialcrew


Commercial Crew Companies Pursue Innovative Abort Technologies

Dream Chaser hybrid motor test firing. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (NASA PR) —Many human spacecraft -— Mercury, Apollo, Russia’s Soyuz, and China’s Shenzhou — include tower abort systems that “pull” the crewed capsule away from a failing rocket. Although its design has proven to be reliable, it comes with inefficiencies. Rather than depending on this heritage design, NASA’s commercial crew partners are developing innovative alternative approaches that not only will allow crews to reliably escape from a launch vehicle accident, but also should prove less costly for missions to low-Earth orbit.


SpaceX Tests SuperDraco Launch Abort Engine

SPACEX PR – Hawthorne, CA – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has successfully test fired SuperDraco, a powerful new engine that will play a critical role in the company’s efforts to change the future of human spaceflight.

“SuperDraco engines represent the best of cutting edge technology,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Chief Technology Officer. “These engines will power a revolutionary launch escape system that will make Dragon the safest spacecraft in history and enable it to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.”