SpaceX Confirms Crew Dragon Capsule Destroyed During Test

SpaceX Confirms Crew Dragon Capsule Destroyed During Test

SpaceX confirmed today that the Crew Dragon Demo-1 capsule was destroyed in the April 20 test “anomaly” at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  It was the first official statement on the capsule’s status although it was widely rumored in space circles and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) said it at a congressional hearing yesterday.  The company is still investigating what happened, but is confident that the cargo version of the capsule is unaffected.  A cargo launch, SpaceX CRS-17, is scheduled overnight, at 3:11 am ET, weather permitting.

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX Vice President of Mission Assurance, speaking at May 2, 2019 CRS-17 pre-launch briefing. Screengrab.

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s Vice President of Mission Assurance, read a statement and answered questions about the Crew Dragon anomaly at a press briefing today in advance of the SpaceX CRS-17 (SpX-17) launch.  The weather forecast is poor so it may slip to early Saturday morning.  As its designation indicates, it is SpaceX’s 17th cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and will deliver 5,500 pounds of supplies, equipment, and scientific experiments.

Although SpX-17 was the subject, the Crew Dragon anomaly was the topic of most of the questions.  SpaceX and NASA have said little since the April 20 event that released a cloud of red smoke visible to area residents.  A video that purported to show the capsule exploding circulated on Twitter, but Koenigsmann refused to confirm its authenticity saying he would not comment on a video not produced by SpaceX.

The incident took place during a static fire test of eight SuperDraco engines that are integrated into the crew version of the Dragon capsule.  They would be used in an emergency to separate the capsule from the Falcon 9 rocket and return the astronauts to a safe landing.  The cargo version of the capsule that will be used for tomorrow morning’s launch is not outfitted with SuperDraco engines, only Draco engines used for maneuvering the spacecraft in orbit.

The Crew Dragon abort system can be used on the launch pad or anytime during ascent to orbit.  SpaceX conducted a pad-abort test in 2015.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Pad Abort Test, May 6, 2015, showing the SuperDraco engines firing. Credit: SpaceX

The static fire test on April 20 was in preparation for an in-flight abort test scheduled for next month.  When that will happen now is up in the air, but it must be successful before astronauts climb aboard for the first crew flight.  That flight, Demo-2, had a target date of July 2019.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is one of two “commercial crew” space transportation systems being developed as public-private partnerships with NASA to takes crews to and from the ISS.  Boeing’s Starliner is the other.  NASA had been hoping that at least one of them would be flying by the end of this year, but that is looking less and less likely. Each company must fly an uncrewed test flight and then a crewed test flight as steps towards certification for operational flights.  SpaceX successfully conducted its uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, in March.  Boeing has not conducted either test.

It was that very same Demo-1 capsule that was being used in the April 20 test on a test stand on property SpaceX leases from the Air Force at CCAFS.  Crew Dragon has two sets of engines — the Draco maneuvering engines and the SuperDraco abort engines.

At the test stand we powered up Dragon and it powered up as expected.  We completed tests with the Draco thrusters — the Draco thrusters are the smaller thrusters that are also on Dragon 1, the Cargo Dragon.  We fired them in two sets, each for five seconds, and that went very well.  And then just prior before we wanted to fire the SuperDraco there was an anomaly, and the vehicle was destroyed.  — Hans Koenigsmann

He later elaborated that the anomaly occurred half a second before the engines were to fire.

His bottom-line message was that the investigation still has a long way to go and until it is finished he cannot make any projections about the impact on the schedule for the in-flight abort test or Demo-2.

The company is confident the problem was not with the SuperDraco engines themselves, which have been tested 600 times at SpaceX’s facility in Texas as well as on the 2015 pad-abort test.  As for what did go wrong, they still do not know and are carefully conducting a fault-tree analysis to find out.

“While it is too early to confirm any cause, whether probable or root, the initial data indicates that the anomaly occurred during activation of the SuperDraco system. That said, we are looking at all possible issues and the investigation is ongoing.”

He stressed that SpaceX followed all safety procedures for the April 20 test and no one was hurt.  “That is why we test. If this has to happen, I’d rather it happens on the ground in the development program….”

Another advantage to it occurring on the ground is that they have a lot of data including high speed imagery, telemetry, and pieces of the hardware.  Analyzing all of that is the top priority at the moment.

Meanwhile, the cargo flights can go on.  As of 11:00 pm ET, it is still on schedule for 3:11 am, just over four hours from now, but the weather forecast is only 40 percent favorable.

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