"Essentially, it's kind of like an ejection seat in an airplane. You have the ability to leave the pad sitting in the capsule and the capsule would come off and land," NASA astronaut Eric Boe said during an interview on NASA TV.
"It's one of the things the shuttle didn't have," added Boe, who twice flew as a space shuttle pilot.
NASA retired the shuttles in 2011 and invested in commercial companies' designs for a new generation of space taxis. The U.S. space agency currently is investing $6.8 billion in privately owned SpaceX and Boeing.
NASA hopes to be flying astronauts to and from the International Space Station by December 2017, breaking Russia's monopoly on crew ferry flights. NASA currently pays Russia about $63 million per person to fly aboard Soyuz capsules.
No astronauts were aboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule during Wednesday's test, though an instrumented crash dummy was strapped into a seat in the crew cabin.
Once the capsule is recovered from the ocean, it will be trucked to SpaceX's McGregor, Texas, facility for post-flight analysis and refurbished so it can fly again.
The capsule was outfitted with 270 sensors to collect speed, temperature, pressure and other data needed to make sure it is safe for flying people.
"The test doesn't have to be flawless to us to call it successful," Jon Cowart, a NASA program manager, told reporters before the flight. "No matter what happens, we are going to learn a lot."
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