CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX postponed a critical launch escape test of its Crew Dragon astronaut taxi today (Jan. 18) due to bad weather at the mission’s launch site. The next attempt will be on Sunday, the company said.
The California-based spaceflight company was scheduled to launch its unpiloted Crew Dragon spacecraft on a used Falcon 9 rocket at 8 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) today from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. However, bad weather at the launch site, coupled with rough seas at Crew Dragon’s recovery zone in the Atlantic Ocean, prompted the delay.
“Standing down from today’s in-flight Crew Dragon launch escape test due to sustained winds and rough seas in the recovery area,” SpaceX wrote in a mission update on Twitter. “Now targeting Sunday, January 19, with a six-hour test window opening at 8:00 a.m. EST, 13:00 UTC.”
You can watch the launch live here and on Space.com’s homepage on Sunday, courtesy of SpaceX, beginning at about 7:40 a.m. EST (1240 GMT). You can also watch the launch directly from SpaceX here, or from NASA here. A NASA TV webcast will begin at 7:45 a.m. EST (1245 GMT).
As part of the mission, SpaceX will intentionally destroy one of its rockets to prove it has what it takes to keep astronauts safe during flight. The test is the last major test of the Crew Dragon system before SpaceX puts people on board.
Called an in-flight abort, the mission will test the spacecraft’s SuperDraco-powered abort system, which is designed to pull the capsule free of its launcher in the event of an emergency during flight.
“This test, which does not have NASA astronauts onboard the spacecraft, is intended to demonstrate Crew Dragon’s ability to reliably carry crew to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on ascent,” SpaceX officials wrote in a statement.
When it does launch, the Crew Dragon’s sensors and two “anthropomorphic test devices” — or human-shaped dummies — will provide SpaceX and NASA with valuable data to see how future crews will fare as well as how the vehicle performs.
The test will simulate an emergency: Approximately 84 seconds seconds after launch, an abort will be triggered. At that time, eight SuperDraco launch abort engines — built into the Dragon’s hull — will pull the capsule safely away from the Falcon 9 before making a parachute landing at sea.
In-flight anomalies are rare, but they do happen so NASA and SpaceX want to be prepared. In October 2018, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin were en route to the space station when an issue popped up with their Soyuz rocket. Thanks to the booster’s launch escape system (similar to the one on Crew Dragon), they were carried to safety and landed back on Earth.
“The most important thing we do is to make sure the launch escape system works and that we’re getting the crew away from Falcon,” Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management, said in a prelaunch press conference Friday (Jan. 17).
NASA wants to ensure that, if one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets were to have a similar anomaly, its astronauts would still be brought home safely; this is what the in-flight abort test will demonstrate.
If all goes according to plan, SpaceX will be one step closer to its goal of launching astronauts. Once it’s Crew Dragon is green-lit to do so, SpaceX will fly two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, to the space station for a two-week stay.
If that flight is successful, NASA will approve Dragon for regular crewed flights.
The weather forecast on Sunday looks equally concerning, although SpaceX will attempt to perform the crucial in-flight launch abort test. The chances of bad weather further postponing the launch are between 50% and 60%, according to the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron. There is also a backup day of Monday (Jan. 20), but the forecast worsens slightly as the chances of weather violation increase to between 50% and 70%.
SpaceX is one of two companies (Boeing is the other) with multi-billion-dollar contracts to fly NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The company launched its first Crew Dragon mission, an unpiloted test flight to the station, in March 2019.
Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort test was delayed when a capsule exploded during a ground-test last April, forcing months of investigation, upgrades and a series of successful static-fire tests to make way for this weekend’s launch.
In 2019, Boeing also launched a pad abort test of its own Starliner spacecraft, as well as an unpiloted test flight to orbit. That orbital flight test, however, did not reach the space station due to a mission clock software error.
Both SpaceX and Boeing aim to launch their first crewed missions later this year.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10 am ET to include more details on SpaceX’s launch delay. Visit Space.com this weekend for complete coverage of SpaceX’s in-flight abort launch.