SpaceX Suffers “Anomaly” During Crew Dragon Test

SpaceX Suffers “Anomaly” During Crew Dragon Test

SpaceX and NASA have confirmed that an “anomaly” occurred yesterday during a static fire test of the SuperDraco engines on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.  The Crew Dragon spacecraft has eight SuperDraco engines that are used for its abort system in case of an emergency during launch or ascent to orbit.  SpaceX is readying for an in-flight abort test as part of its preparations for commercial crew flights to the International Space Station (ISS).

The SuperDraco engines are built into the sidewalls of the Crew Dragon capsule. Each produces 15,000 pounds of thrust.  SpaceX’s wesbite explains that its abort system “will be able to provide astronauts with the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the ascent trajectory, not just in the first few minutes” like other launch abort systems.

SpaceX also planned to use them at one time for propulsive landings on Earth, instead of the spacecraft landing in the ocean, but the company abandoned those plans in 2017.

SpaceX successfully conducted a pad-abort test using the engines in 2015 to demonstrate the capsule could be safely separated from the Falcon 9 rocket if the emergency occurred while both were on the launch pad.  The in-fight abort test will demonstrate that capability after they have left the pad.

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

Yesterday the company was conducing a static fire test where the spacecraft is attached to a test stand.  It was in preparation for the in-flight abort test, which was most recently scheduled for June.  SpaceX issued the following statement yesterday afternoon:

“Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand.

“Ensuring that our systems meet rigorous safety standards and detecting anomalies like this prior to flight are the main reasons why we test. Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners.” — SpaceX

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted a statement as well.

Florida Today reporter Emre Kelly tweeted a photo showing smoke billowing from SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, where the test took place.

Last month, SpaceX successfully completed its uncrewed demonstration flight of a Crew Dragon capsule, Demo-1, to the ISS.  Until yesterday, the schedule anticipated the in-flight abort test in June and the crewed test flight, Demo-2, in July.  It is too soon to know how that schedule will be affected.

SpaceX and Boeing are each developing crew space transportation systems to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS as public-private partnerships with NASA.  NASA had hoped that at least one of the systems would be operational by the end of this year to release NASA from its dependence on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.  NASA has not been able to launch anyone into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.

Both companies must conduct an uncrewed test flight and then a crewed test flight before their systems are certified for operational use.  SpaceX’s Demo-1 uncrewed test flight raised hopes that its system was getting close to being able to carry crews.  Boeing’s schedule recently slipped again.  Whether it is realistic to expect either system to fly with crews in 2019 seems in doubt today.

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