SpaceX’s new Pad Abort system is designed to make manned space missions safer

Blasting people up into space is a dangerous endeavor, but early Wednesday morning, SpaceX took a big step toward making it safer. Just after 9am ET, at SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Cape Canaveral, the company successfully completed the first test of its Pad Abort system — an emergency bailout system designed to get astronauts out of harm’s way in the event of a launch accident.

In a worst-case scenario — like, say, a booster failure — the Pad Abort system would work like a jet pilot’s ejection seat, allowing the rocket’s passengers to quickly propel themselves up and away from danger in a small pod. The goal is to avoid tragedies like the 1986 Challenger explosion.

SpaceX’s launch lasted about 90 seconds. The Dragon 2 capsule fired its eight SuperDraco engines for about six seconds, boosting the spacecraft about a mile above the surface before it fell back to Earth on a set of three large parachutes. The capsule was unmanned during that test, but SpaceX has plans to use it for manned missions in the future.

But it’s not ready for primetime quite yet. There’s still a lot of testing that needs to be done before SpaceX starts launching actual astronauts into orbit in 2017. The company has scheduled a second test flight for a yet-to-be-announced date later this year — and it’ll be much tougher than this first one. In the next trial, the spacecraft will have to successfully separate from a Falcon 9 rocket while in flight, which is a slightly more complicated task than Wednesday’s ground launch.

Check out the video above to see the full launch and landing. We highly recommend skipping forward a bit though — the good stuff doesn’t start until about 15:50.