After weeks of speculation, SpaceX has finally admitted that a Crew Dragon capsule was destroyed during a system breakdown test on April 20. No cause was given for the anomaly and no new details were disclosed about potential delays in NASA & # 39; s languishing Commercial Crew program.
Earlier this week, Hans Koenigsmann, the vice president of building and flight reliability at SpaceX, told reporters at a NASA briefing: "The accident is certainly not good news," in terms of the company's plan to bring astronauts later to launch the space. CBS News reports. The aim of the briefing was to discuss an upcoming cargo launch with the ISS, but the incident, in which a Crew Dragon capsule was set on fire just before firing the launch abortion heads, dominated much of the discussion.
The accident occurred at Cape Canaveral & # 39; s Landing Zone 1 on April 20 during static ground tests of the system boosters. The Dragon crew reportedly went up in flames and thick orange-black smoke, which was probably toxic, could be seen for miles. Both NASA and SpaceX talked to each other about the incident, but Koenigsmann shared some new information with reporters during the briefing.
Tests of the smaller, maneuverable Draco nozzles were conducted earlier in the day without incident, he said. It was when the focus shifted to the larger SuperDraco amplifiers of the system – a series of eight thrusters that were linked to the shut-off system – that things went sideways.
"We turned on Dragon on the test bench, it started 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 just before we wanted to fire the SuperDracos, there was an anomaly and the vehicle was destroyed."
The accident happened half a second before the SuperDracos would have been ignited, he said, but the SpaceX VP refused to speculate about the reason for the failure, saying that an investigation is underway to determine the cause. He would not say, for example, whether the trip from the Crew Dragon to the ISS in March might have had something to do with the failure. That said, Koenigsman said the SuperDraco thrusters were probably not the reason for the deviation, because the company has conducted "about 600 tests" of the boosters so far, as SpaceNews reported. The ignition system "was activated – that means opening and closing valves and pressurizing systems – when the flames broke out," he said, as reported by the Associated Press.
Based on his comments, it seems that Koenigsman thinks the problem may be related to the ignition process of the system, which would actually be good news; the internal plumbing of the system would, so to speak, probably be a much simpler solution than the thrusters, which, if a problem is detected, may require a major overhaul.
Koenigsman also refrained from speculating about how the incident might affect planning in the future. The next major milestone was to take place in June, with a non-screw test of the dragon abortion system performed during the flight. The inaugural manned flight with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken was due to take place in July, but Koenigsman said the results of the investigation will dictate the schedule and any required follow-up steps.
"Completing the investigation and resolving this anomaly is actually our main focus, especially for me, now," said Koenigsman per SpaceNews. "I hope this is a relatively quick investigation at the end of the day and I don't want to completely exclude the current schedule."
On a positive note, Koenigsman said that more Crew Dragons are currently being built, one of which could possibly be used for the upcoming flight abortion test, according to AP. Also, Dragon cargo capsules used for transporting supplies to the ISS will not be affected by this failed test, he said, because these systems are not equipped with the abortion heads. For example, a capsule with Dragon cargo is scheduled to be launched tomorrow from Cape Canaveral in Florida after a series of unrelated delays.
All this said, and to repeat the words of Koenigsmann, this is "certainly not good news", no matter how you cut it. It is clear that something is wrong with the crew version of the Dragon capsule and that it must be resolved. This will take time and effort, so delays for the already delayed Commercial Crew program from NASA are to be expected.