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SpaceX closes in on flying people to space after completing fiery NASA test

The four main parachutes of SpaceX"s Crew Dragon slow the capsule down after its in-flight abort test.NASA TV

SpaceX completed what is expected to be its last test before flying astronauts to space on Sunday, in a critical high-speed mission that lasted mere minutes.

Launched on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the company conducted a test of its Crew Dragon capsule called in-flight abort. It's a crucial milestone for Elon Musk's space company, as it will be key in determining whether NASA certifies the company's capsule to begin flying the agency's astronauts.

"The main objective of this test is to show that we can carry the astronauts safely away from the rocket in case anything's going wrong," SpaceX director of crew mission management Benji Reed said in a press conference on Friday.

A rendering shows SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule firing its emergency escape engines during the company's test flightSpaceX

The in-flight abort test is designed to mimic a real launch but with an important difference: SpaceX triggered Crew Dragon's emergency escape system during the most intense part of the launch.

In just under 90 seconds into the launch, the rocket reached a critical velocity known as "Max Q." This is the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure, when the Earth's dense atmosphere is exerting enormous force on the rocket as it accelerates into the sky. Around this time, SpaceX triggered the abort.

Crew Dragon separated from the Falcon 9 and then fired its own set of engines -- accelerating the capsule away from the rocket. While the capsule continued toward a splashdown in the ocean under its four parachutes, the company's rocket exploded, breaking into pieces as it ripped across the sky.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 explodes during a test of the company's Crew Dragon capsule.NASA TV

"Destroyed in Dragon fire," Musk said about the expected destruction of the rocket in a tweet last week.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule splashes down after its first test flight in March 2019.NASA/Cory Huston

SpaceX has developed Crew Dragon in large part thanks to NASA's commercial crew program, as the company has been awarded more than $3.1 billion since winning its first contract for the capsule in 2014. Development of Crew Dragon has suffered several setbacks over the years, including getting its parachute system working and a capsule explosion during a test last April.

"This test is very important to us. It's really the culmination of years of work together in close partnership with NASA," Reed said.

If this test and Crew Dragon's final certification process are successful, NASA expects SpaceX to fly two of its astronauts on a test flight to the space station later this year. It will be the first time the U.S. launched its own astronauts to the International Space Station since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

"This is our last milestone" for Crew Dragon under NASA's development contract, commercial crew manager Kathy Lueders said in the press conference Friday.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken suited up inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.NASA

After the launch, NASA and SpaceX will host a press conference to talk about the preliminary results of the test. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, along with two agency astronauts, are scheduled to speak.

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