SpaceX confirmed today that the Crew Dragon capsule exploded during a recent test, weeks before the capsule was scheduled to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.
SpaceX Confirms Crew Dragon Was Destroyed in Explosion
The vice president of mission assurance for SpaceX, Hans Koenigsmann, confirmed during a press briefing today that the Crew Dragon capsule was destroyed in an explosion during a test last month, several weeks before the capsule was scheduled to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
“Just prior to when we wanted to fire the SuperDraco, there was an anomaly, and the vehicle was destroyed,” Koenigsmann said.
“While it is too early to confirm any cause, whether probable or crude, the initial data indicates that the anomaly occurred during the activation of the SuperDraco system,” he added.
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The capsule that was destroyed was the same capsule that was used in SpaceX's Demo-1, an uncrewed test flight in March, where it successfully docked with the ISS before successfully returning to Earth. SpaceX has another Crew Dragon capsule, but until a cause for the explosion is established, there's no way to tell if the problem was a design failure or the result of damage the capsule sustained as part of the Demo-1 mission.
NASA officials are working with SpaceX investigators to determine the cause of the explosion. NASA has given SpaceX a $2.6 billion contract to build the Crew Dragon capsule that NASA had planned on using to return human space flight back to American soil this year. NASA currently has to pay Russia to fly American astronauts to the ISS aboard their Soyuz rocket. After last month's explosion, SpaceX might not be able to begin crewed missions to space until sometime in 2020.
Meanwhile, Boeing's Starliner is also gearing up for test flights this year, and the two private commercial space companies are competing to win large NASA contracts to ferry as many as four astronauts into space at a time.
CNBC published Koenigsmann's entire statement earlier today, which is reprinted below.
“Please keep in mind that this is still very early in the investigation. The investigation is by both SpaceX and NASA. Both teams are carefully reviewing the telemetry data and all the data that was collected during that test: High speed imagery, telemetry, and it will include eventually analysis of the recovered hardware from the test.
Priority at this moment is to allow the teams conduct their analysis before we come to any conclusions. That said, here’s what we can confirm at this point in time.
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 just prior before we wanted to fire the SuperDraco there was an anomaly, and the vehicle was destroyed.
There were no injuries. SpaceX had taken all safety measures prior to this test, as we always do. And because this was a ground test we have a higher amount of data, or a huge amount of data, from the vehicle and the ground sensors.
While it is too early to confirm any cause, whether probable or crude, the initial data indicates that the anomaly occurred during the activation of the SuperDraco system. That said, we’re looking at all possible issues and the investigation is ongoing.
We have no reason to believe there is an issue with the SuperDracos themselves. Those have been through about 600 tests at our test facility in Texas and you also know about the pad abort, we did some hover tests, so there was a lot of testing on the SuperDraco and we continue to have high confidence in that particular thruster.
As you mentioned already, Crew Dragon is built upon the heritage of Cargo Dragon but these are different spacecraft. Dragon does not use SuperDraco and its propellant systems. We have looked at all of the common links between the two spacecraft. We viewed that and we approved them for flight by both teams, NASA and SpaceX, in common.
Also want to point out that for CRS-17, that spacecraft has flown as CRS-12 already, which means it has been test very well – like, flight, basically.
Again, I’d like to reiterate the anomaly occurred during a test, not during a flight. That is why we test. If this has to happen, I’d rather it happens on the ground in the development program and I believe what we will learn from this test will make us basically a better company and Dragon 2 at the end a better vehicle, a safer vehicle. And so we will take the lessons learned from this and I’m convinced this will help us to ensure that Crew Dragon is one of the safest human spaceflight vehicles ever built. ”