Launch escape system
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX)
Hawthorne, CA

Due to the recent retirement of the space shuttle, NASA now depends on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

An artist's image of the Dragon spacecraft in orbit. (SpaceX)

To address the United States’ commercial human spaceflight needs, the agency has contracted Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to develop a launch escape system that enables the company’s Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts. The Congressionally mandated award is part of NASA’s 2009 Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiative, designed to help private companies advance concepts and technologies for human spaceflight.

In December of 2010, SpaceX launched a Dragon spacecraft from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The successful flight demonstrated the components necessary to transport humans to low-Earth orbit. SpaceX expects to be ready to fly its first manned mission in 2014.

Dragon is designed to carry seven astronauts at a time to the International Space Station. While considerable flight testing remains, the critical-path technology Dragon needs for commercial human transport is the launch escape system. Due to their extreme weight, tractor systems must be jettisoned within minutes of liftoff. The SpaceX design, however, builds escape engines into the side walls of Dragon, eliminating the danger of releasing a heavy solid rocket escape tower after launch.

An artist's image of the Dragon spacecraft in orbit. (SpaceX)
The SpaceX design also provides a crew with emergency escape capabilities throughout the entire flight, whereas the space shuttle had no escape system; even the Apollo Moon program allowed escape only during the first few minutes of flight.

Furthermore, the integrated escape system returns with the spacecraft, allowing for reuse and reductions in the cost of space transport. Over time, the same escape thrusters will also provide the capability for Dragon to land on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy, overcoming the limitation of a winged architecture that works only in Earth’s atmosphere.

SpaceX will modify Dragon according to specific hardware milestones that provide NASA with regular, demonstrated progress, including static fire testing of the launch escape system engines, design of abort engine and crew accommodations, and prototype evaluations by NASA crew for seats, control panels, and cabin.

SpaceX will fly at least 12 missions to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract for NASA.

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