A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched Sunday morning from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., in a test of the Crew Dragon capsule's escape system. Photo by Joe Marino-Bill Cantrell/UPI
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla., Jan. 19 (UPI) -- SpaceX blew up a rocket in Florida on Sunday in a final test launch of its Crew Dragon space capsule, proving it can carry astronauts to safety in a launch emergency.
The successful test means SpaceX is poised to launch the first astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. NASA Administrator James Bridenstine said there is still work to be done, such as a few more parachute tests, but the last big hurdle was Sunday's launch.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said the first launch with astronauts is likely to happen in the second quarter of 2020, no earlier than April. The capsule would carry veteran NASA fliers Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
"Given what looks to be a very successful test, we now have options," Bridenstine said.
However, he said NASA would proceed with buying additional seats on Russian Soyuz capsules to ensure American astronauts have access to the space station.
The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off into a hazy, windy sky at 10:30 a.m. About 84 seconds into the flight, the capsule detached from the rocket. Eight of SpaceX's SuperDraco engines carried the capsule to a height of about 25 miles with more than 120,000 pounds of thrust.
Musk also said the data that streamed back to the space company during the test on Sunday looked good. He said sensors aboard the capsule showed astronauts would have experienced a maximum of 3.5 times Earth's gravity. That compares to near 7 G's endured by people on a Russian Soyuz capsule that aborted in October 2018.
During the test, the Falcon rocket toppled toward the Atlantic Ocean, partly exploding in a fireball, and the capsule landed several minutes later in choppy seas about 20 miles offshore.
Musk said Sunday the capsule could escape even if the rocket exploded while it was still attached.
"It could quite literally look like something out of Star Wars flying right out of the fireball," he said.
He said he was "super fired up" about the successful test.
"I never expected SpaceX to get this far," Musk said. "I find it quite surreal."
Behnken said it was an exciting day, and that he and Hurley had access to all the data streaming in during the test.
"I think we are comfortable with where we're at with this vehicle," Hurley said.
NASA had been planning for the two men to make a short stay at the space station in a flight designed mostly to demonstrate the capsule's functions. But Bridenstine said Sunday that Behnken and Hurley may stay longer, to maximize the use of the space station.
The capsule floated at sea after parachutes helped it descend. Teams from the Air Force and SpaceX were stationed to recover it as they rehearsed getting a crew out of the capsule.
The rocket that was destroyed Sunday included the first booster ever flown of SpaceX's latest rocket type, the Falcon 9 Block 5, which had its maiden launch in May 2018. SpaceX has been reusing the first-stage boosters since 2015.
SpaceX said the capsule is designed to escape from danger at any point during the mission, not just in the first few minutes.
SpaceX is competing with Boeing's Starliner capsule program to deliver astronauts to the station, and both companies are years behind schedule. Starliner flew into space in an uncrewed test Dec. 20 but missed a planned docking with the station.
Boeing intends to reuse Starliner capsules up to 10 times, while SpaceX does not.
But Musk said Sunday that SpaceX is still talking to NASA about the possibility of reusing Crew Dragon.
"It is designed to be easily reusable," he said.