(Updates with quotes from Elon Musk, details of flights)
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. May 6 (Reuters) - A Space Exploration Technologies' passenger spaceship made a quick debut test flight on Wednesday, shooting itself off a Florida launch pad to demonstrate a key emergency escape system.
The 20 foot- (6 meter) tall Dragon capsule, a modified version of the spacecraft that flies cargo to the International Space Station, fired up its eight, side-mounted thruster engines at 9 a.m. EDT/1300 GMT to catapult nearly one mile (1.6 km) up and over the Atlantic Ocean.
The flight ended less than two minutes later with the capsule's parachute splash-down about 1.4 miles (2.6 km) east of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch site.
"I think this bodes quite well for the future of the program," SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk told reporters on a conference call after the flight. "It was quite a complicated test."
The purpose of the flight was to demonstrate an escape system to carry the capsule to safety in case of a fire or accident during launch.
"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 designs for a new generation of space taxis. The U.S. space agency has contracts worth a combined $6.8 billion with privately owned SpaceX, as the California-based firm is known, and Boeing for spaceship development and up to six flights per company.
NASA hopes to be flying astronauts to the space station on U.S. spaceships by December 2017, breaking Russia's monopoly on crew ferry flights. NASA currently pays Russia about $63 million per person for rides on its Soyuz capsules.
No astronauts were aboard the heavily instrumented Dragon capsule that flew Wednesday, though a crash dummy was strapped into a seat in the crew cabin. Musk said the capsule reached a peak speed of 345 mph (555 kph).
"That's pretty zippy," he said.
SpaceX plans to refly the capsule as early as this summer aboard a Falcon 9 rocket to test an abort maneuver at supersonic speed and high altitude. The rocket will fly from SpaceX's launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (firstname.lastname@example.org; Editing by Nick Zieminski)