Sending astronauts to space and returning them back to Earth. That’s the next big milestone for SpaceX and other private space companies. Before that becomes a reality, SpaceX needs to pass certification tests.

A recent parachute test high-above an Arizona desert was aimed at doing just that. The actual Crew Dragon spacecraft was not used as part of the test. Instead, engineers opted for a mass simulator connected to the parachute system. This mass simulator replicates the weight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Thousands of feet above the ground, a massive C-130 released its payload. Four red-and-white parachutes successfully deployed.

While the Crew Dragon spacecraft wasn’t attached, these tests are still vital for SpaceX engineers. They can test the reliability of the parachutes and see how well they slow down an object that weighs similar to the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Future tests will progress to the point of actual conditions during an operational mission.

SpaceX always has its eye on the future

SpaceX using parachutes? Why aren’t they doing something to blow our minds? Well, it’s a proven system. Parachutes have been successfully used to bring astronauts back to Earth for decades. And SpaceX plans to use parachutes to bring the Crew Dragon spacecraft back to Earth at first. But this is SpaceX. They are always working on something else.

That something else is using boosters to safely land the spacecraft on land. You know how SpaceX keeps trying to land the first stage of the Falcon 9? Same principle with the Crew Dragon.

SpaceX dragon hover test

On November 24, SpaceX’s Dragon 2 nailed a propulsive hover test at the company’s facility in McGregor, Texas. Eight SuperDraco Engines generated 33,000 lbs of thrust during a five-second hover.

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It was the second successful test of a two-part milestone under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

The concept is incredible. Being able to land a spacecraft safely on the ground with what is described as the “accuracy of a helicopter.” It doesn’t get any better than that. Instead of fishing astronauts out of the water, NASA and SpaceX could just bring them to a landing pad. But don’t expect these type of landings with astronauts in them anytime soon. SpaceX’s initial manned missions to the International Space Station will rely on the tried and true parachute method.

Landing astronauts like this would be cool as hell, but there’s another use for the SuperDraco engines that’s even more important. Aborting launches.

SpaceX Dragon abort test

The eight SuperDraco engines can get astronauts out of harm’s way in the event of a launch pad emergency.

Here’s a test from last May.

The eight SuperDraco engines are installed on the sides of the Dragon Crew capsule and give astronauts an abort ability from the launch pad all the way to orbit. SpaceX is planning additional abort tests including a high-altitude one.

Not only will these engines one day bring astronauts back to Earth after a long mission, but they can save lives during the perilous trip up.

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