After weeks of speculation, SpaceX has finally admitted that a Crew Dragon capsule was destroyed during a test of system’s abort thrusters on April 20. No cause was given for the anomaly, nor were any new details disclosed about possible delays to NASA’s languishing Commercial Crew Programme.
Speaking to reporters at a NASA briefing held earlier this week, Hans Koenigsmann, the vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said the mishap is “certainly not great news,” in terms of the company’s plan to launch astronauts into space later this year, as CBS News reports. The purpose of the briefing was to discuss an upcoming cargo launch to the ISS, but the incident, in which a Crew Dragon capsule got torched just prior to the firing of launch-abort thrusters, dominated much of the discussion.
The mishap occurred at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1 on April 20 during static ground tests of the system’s boosters. The Crew Dragon was reportedly engulfed in flames and thick orange-black smoke, which was probably toxic, could be seen for miles. Both NASA and SpaceX have been tight-lipped about the incident, but Koenigsmann shared some new information with reporters during the briefing.
Tests of the system’s smaller, manoeuvring Draco thrusters were done earlier in the day without incident, he said. It was when the focus shifted to the system’s larger SuperDraco boosters—a series of eight thrusters tied to the abort system—that things went sideways.
“At the test stand, we powered up Dragon, it powered up as expected, we completed tests with the Draco thrusters—the smaller thrusters that are also on the cargo Dragon,” said Koenigsmann per CBS News. “And then just before we wanted to fire the SuperDracos there was an anomaly and the vehicle was destroyed.”
The mishap happened a half-second before the SuperDracos were to have been ignited he said, but the SpaceX VP refused to speculate about the reason for the failure, saying an investigation is currently underway to determine the cause. He wouldn’t say, for example, as to whether the Crew Dragon’s trip to the ISS in March might have had anything to do with the failure. That said, Koenigsman said the SuperDraco thrusters probably weren’t the reason for the anomaly, saying the company has conducted “about 600 tests” of the boosters to date, as SpaceNews reported. The ignition system “had been activated—which involves opening and closing valves, and pressurizing systems—when flames erupted,” he said, as reported by the Associated Press.
Based on his comments, it appears that Koenigsman feels the problem might be tied to the system’s ignition process, which would actually be good news; the internal plumbing of the system, so to speak, would likely be a much easier fix than the thrusters, which, if a problem is detected, might require a major overhaul.
Koenigsman also refrained from speculating about how the incident might affect the schedule moving forward. The next major milestone was supposed to happen in June, with an in-flight, uncrewed test of the Dragon’s abort system. The inaugural crewed flight involving NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken was supposed to happen as early as July, but Koenigsman said the results of the investigation will dictate the schedule and any required next steps.
“Finishing the investigation and resolving this anomaly is actually our prime focus, certainly for me, right now,” said Koenigsman per SpaceNews. “I hope this is a relatively swift investigation at the end of the day, and I don’t want to completely preclude the current schedule.”
On a positive note, Koenigsman said more Crew Dragons are currently being built, one of which could conceivably be used for the upcoming in-flight abort test, according to AP. Also, Dragon cargo capsules used to transport supplies to the ISS won’t be affected by this failed test, he said, as these systems aren’t equipped with the abort thrusters. For example, a Dragon cargo capsule is scheduled to launch tomorrow from Cape Canaveral in Florida following a series of unrelated delays.
All this said, and to repeat the words of Koenigsmann, this is “certainly not great news,” no matter how you slice it. Clearly, something bad is going on with the crew version of the Dragon capsule, and it’ll need to be fixed. This will take time and effort, so delays to NASA’s already-delayed Commercial Crew Programme should be expected.