NASA’s Commercial Crew initiative enabled third-party contractors such as Boeing and SpaceX to develop platforms that may be used in future crewed missions to the International Space Station and to deep space, which is particularly important as NASA looks to move away from its dependence on the Russian Soyuz platform for space travel and bring launches back to American soil, but this is a lot more complicated than it might seem.
All parties involved are expected to adhere to NASA’s stringent safety protocols, and in many cases, that means proving a platform’s reliability over the course of several launches and demonstrating that all safety mechanisms will prevent unnecessary harm or death of any astronauts onboard in the case of a catastrophic emergency.
Abort systems have been around for years, existing even in some of the earliest space missions. Some of the older abort systems were a lot cruder, necessitating more work on the astronauts’ part to get to safety; but modern abort systems are automatic, reducing the likelihood of a tragedy.
In an upcoming launch, SpaceX will demonstrate its Crew Dragon capsule’s mission abort system, a move that will involve intentionally destroying its own equipment such that the capsule’s emergency detectors fire the abort system autonomously in mid-air. This demonstration will show NASA whether astronauts riding on a Dragon capsule to the International Space Station will be safe if any part of the launch fails to reach outer space.
The launch will involve a Falcon 9 rocket, which will purposefully fail in mid-air such that the Dragon Capsule’s emergency detection system can respond accordingly. The capsule will then fire its emergency Super Draco thrusters, pushing it far away from the failing rocket, and it will then deploy parachutes, enabling it to perform a soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean.