NASA Is Putting SpaceX's Crew Dragon Through The Wringer

Making sure the capsule performs well under pressure

crew dragon pressure test
An unfinished Crew Dragon capsule sits in a fixture meant to stress its structure. This test module doesn't contain working avionics or propulsion equipment, or the finished hull. Instead, the focus is on testing the pressure vessel--the area astronauts will ride in on their way into orbit.SpaceX

In a spacecraft that's built to carry humans, the "pressure vessel" is the part of the structure the astronauts inhabit on their way to the International Space Station. The pressure vessel keeps air in and the vacuum of space out, and maintains a pressure that's friendly to Earthlings. Basically its job is to keep them alive despite the hazards of spaceflight. So, you know, no pressure.

All of that means the pressure vessel has to be vigorously tested on a brand new spacecraft like SpaceX's Crew Dragon. The Crew Dragon is shaping up to be the first privately owned vehicle to carry astronauts to the space station next year or in 2018.

In the photo above, NASA has an unfinished Crew Dragon capsule sitting in a fixture that's meant to stress (torture?) the structure.

Another kind of pressure test, which NASA's Orion capsule recently underwent, overfills the capsule with air, exposing any weaknesses in the pressure vessel structure as it expands.

Another view of the Crew Dragon's pressure test.
Another view of the Crew Dragon's pressure test.SpaceX