Elon Musk’s SpaceX has completed the last big test of its crew capsule before launching astronauts in as little as two months, mimicking an emergency escape shortly after lift-off on Sunday.
No-one was aboard for the wild ride in the skies above Cape Canaveral, just two mannequins.
The Falcon 9 rocket blasted off as normal but just over a minute into its supersonic flight, the Dragon crew capsule catapulted off the top 12 miles above the Atlantic.
Powerful thrusters on the capsule propelled it up and out of harm’s way as the rocket engines deliberately shut down and the booster tumbled out of control in a fiery flash.
The capsule reached an altitude of about 27 miles before parachuting into the ocean just offshore to bring the nine-minute test flight to a close and pave the way for two NASA astronauts to climb aboard next time.
SpaceX flight controllers at the company’s California headquarters cheered every milestone – especially the splashdown.
Everything appeared to go well despite the choppy seas and overcast skies.
Within minutes, a recovery ship was alongside the capsule and preparing to pull it from the water.
“I’m super fired up,” said Mr Musk, the company’s founder and chief executive.
“It’s just going to be wonderful to get astronauts back into orbit from American soil after almost a decade of not being able to do so.
“That’s just super exciting.”
Recycled from three previous launches, the SpaceX rocket was destroyed as it crashed into the sea in pieces.
The company founded and led by Mr Musk normally recovers its boosters, landing them upright on a floating platform or back at the launch site.
“That’s 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’s Benji Reed, director of crew mission management, said.
“This test is very important to us … a huge practice session,” Mr Reed added.
Nasa’s commercial crew programme manager, Kathy Lueders, said the launch abort test was “our last open milestone” before allowing SpaceX to launch Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken to the International Space Station.
Its administrator Jim Bridenstine and Mr Musk agreed that could happen in the second quarter – as early as April.
“We are purposely failing a launch vehicle to make sure that our abort system on the spacecraft, that will be flying for our crews, works,” Ms Lueders said in advance of the demo.
Delayed a day by bad weather, Sunday’s launch from Kennedy Space Centre brought together hundreds of SpaceX, Nasa and Air Force employees on land, at sea and in the air.
Tourists and locals alike packed the adjoining visitor complex and nearby beaches to see the dramatic fiery spectacle of an out-of-control rocket.
“Dragon high altitude, supersonic abort test is a risky mission, as it’s pushing the envelope in so many ways,” Mr Musk tweeted minutes before lift-off.
Mr Hurley and Mr Behnken, the Nasa astronauts assigned to the first SpaceX crew, monitored the flight from the firing room, including the capsule recovery effort
They took part in a dress rehearsal on Friday, suiting up and heading to the launchpad.
Nasa astronauts have not launched from the US since 2011, when the space shuttle programme ended.