Entrepreneur Elon Musk's aerospace firm SpaceX blasted a capsule carrying a test dummy a mile high into the sky early Wednesday in a crucial test of the company's plan to carry humans to orbit.
The space capsule was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 6 a.m. Pacific time. After a flight of just 90 seconds, the craft's red-and-white parachutes deployed and it gently splashed into the Atlantic.
The short flight tested a system designed to save astronauts' lives by enabling them to escape the launch pad in the event of an explosion — or other failure — during liftoff.
"This is what SpaceX was basically founded for: human spaceflight," Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX's vice president of mission assurance, said in a NASA release. "It's our first big test on the Crew Dragon" capsule.
The so-called launch abort system includes eight rocket engines built into the capsule's walls that can blast the craft up and away from the pad. It is designed to work like an ejection seat for a fighter pilot, except in this case the capsule is propelled away from the rest of the rocket.
The human-size dummy was equipped with sensors to gather data on the gravitational forces experienced inside the Crew Dragon capsule. More sensors, as well as cameras and microphones, were built into the capsule to determine the effectiveness of the escape system.
Last year, SpaceX and Boeing Co. each won contracts from NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. The first of these launches with astronauts on board is planned for 2017. Currently, NASA pays Russia to take astronauts to orbit.
NASA has required both companies to prove they have a reliable escape system for astronauts. The agency's space shuttles, which ferried astronauts until the spacecraft were retired in 2011, lacked an emergency escape route.
In 1986, the Challenger exploded during liftoff, killing seven astronauts. Seven more died on the Columbia in 2003 as the shuttle reentered the Earth's atmosphere.
SpaceX is already carrying cargo to the space station under a separate contract with NASA. Those flights are unmanned.
After media outlets reported that SpaceX had named the dummy Buster, the company corrected that information Monday, saying the dummy "prefers to remain anonymous for the time being."
SpaceX has designed the escape system to work all the way to orbit. The next test will look at whether the system works in mid-flight.