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SpaceX to blow up rocket in mid-air in final astronaut test

Anthony Cuthbertson
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base: David McNew/Getty Images

SpaceX plans to explode a Falcon 9 rocket travelling 1,000mph over the Atlantic Ocean as part of the final safety test before sending astronauts into space.

The “In-flight Abort Test” is designed to demonstrate SpaceX’s ability to carry astronauts to safety using the Crew Dragon spacecraft in the event of an emergency launch failure.

Lift-off is planned for 8am ET (1pm GMT) on Saturday, with the Falcon 9 set to get torn apart during its descent shortly after.

The Crew Dragon capsule attached to the rocket has been configured to separate from the Falcon 9 at the moment of “peak mechanical stress” on the rocket, before landing safely using parachutes.

“SpaceX designed Crew Dragon to be one of the safest human spaceflight systems ever built,” the private space firm said.

“SpaceX’s in-flight demonstration of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities is designed to provide valuable data toward Nasa certifying the spacecraft to begin carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).”

The launch will take place from Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida – the same site used to send astronauts to the moon during the Apollo program.

SpaceX is carrying out the procedure in conjunction with Nasa, with both organisations using the data to evaluate whether the spacecraft can be certified as safe to carry astronauts.

It is expected to be an impressive spectacle, with the “rapid unscheduled disassembly” set to be livestreamed on SpaceX’s website.

“We expect there to be some sort of ignition, and probably a fireball of some kind,” Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management, said during a press briefing on Friday.

“Whether I would call it an explosion that you see from the ground, I don’t know. We’ll have to see what actually happens. But I wouldn’t be surprised, and that wouldn’t be a bad outcome if that’s what we saw.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the Falcon 9 rocket would be "destroyed in Dragon fire".

The exact time of the explosion will depend on a number of factors, including launch time and weather conditions, and a dedicated team of recovery personnel will be in place to gather up any debris.