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SpaceX tests astronaut escape feature on Dragon spacecraft

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MIAMI (AFP): SpaceX on Wednesday launched the first flight test of the emergency astronaut escape feature on its Dragon spaceship, which aims to carry people to low-Earth orbit as early as 2017.

The California-based company headed by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk described it as "the first critical test in preparation for our first human missions."

No astronauts were on board for the brief demonstration flight, which blasted off at 9 AM (1300 GMT) on a cloudy morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The gum-drop shaped Dragon launched with the help of eight SuperDraco rocket engines built into the white capsule's walls, accelerating from 0 to 100 miles per hour in one second and travelling over a mile in the first 20 seconds.

Mid-flight, at about 5,000 feet (1,500 meters), the spacecraft jettisoned its trunk and three parachutes deployed to slow the descent of the Dragon capsule before it splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean.

The entire flight test was over in about one and a half minutes.

"This flight test (is) unlike any seen in Florida since the days of Apollo," said NASA commentator Rob Navias, referring to the US capsules that traveled to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

Abort capability has been a feature of other space capsules built by Russia, as well as on the US Mercury and Apollo missions, but those systems would only work shortly after launch.

The SpaceX abort feature "means Crew Dragon will have launch escape capability from the launch pad all the way to orbit," said the company website.

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