US private space firm SpaceX has conducted the first flight test of its future spacecraft for astronauts to verify performance of the capsule’s main emergency escape system.
The Dragon capsule took off on a short flight from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, USA, ascending to an altitude of 1.6km above the Atlantic Ocean, powered by its side-mounted thruster engines. The capsule design was derived from the vehicle delivering supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).
The capsule separated from the launcher approximately two minutes in to the flight, descending slowly to the waters of the ocean courtesy of a set of parachutes.
The flight simulated an unexpected post-launch emergency scenario designed to move the crew away from the possibility of a malfunctioning launcher.
"Essentially, it's kind of like an ejection seat in an airplane. You have the ability to leave the pad sitting in the capsule and the capsule would come off and land," Nasa astronaut Eric Boe said during an interview on Nasa TV.
"It's one of the things the shuttle didn't have," added Boe, who twice flew as a space shuttle pilot.
One passenger was aboard the capsule during the test: a crash dummy seated in the crew cabin, equipped with sensitive sensors.
Altogether, the capsule carried 270 detectors, collecting data on speed, temperature and pressure in order to verify that the vehicle is safe for people.
"The test doesn't have to be flawless to us to call it successful," Jon Cowart, a Nasa program manager, told reporters before the flight. "No matter what happens, we are going to learn a lot."
SpaceX wants to repeat the manoeuvre later this year using its flagship Falcon 9 rocket as a launcher to prove the abort system works at supersonic speeds and high altitude.
The test paves the way for Nasa to regain domestic capability to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the American space agency has been dependent on Russia to deliver its astronauts to the space station, purchasing rides for $63m per seat.
In addition to SpaceX, American defence giant Boeing is also developing a manned space capsule for Nasa. The agency hopes to send the new vehicles on their maiden journey to the ISS in 2017.
The previous crew vehicle - the space shuttle - had insufficient launch abort capabilities and failed to save the crew of the ill-fated Challenger in 1986.
That shuttle exploded 73 seconds after lift off, when hot gases burnt through the casing of the powering rocket. All seven people aboard were killed.
Watch a video from the Dragon launch abort test: