SpaceX has confirmed that its Crew Dragon capsule “anomaly” resulted in the destruction of the spacecraft, as new details about the schedule-derailing incident continue to drip out. The test of the Crew Dragon capsule – which was unmanned at the time – in April resulted in failure, though SpaceX has been tight-lipped on what, exactly, went wrong.
The April 20 test was meant to see the Crew Dragon capsule fire its SuperDraco engines. Instead, observers reported seeing plumes of smoke above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
“This is why we test,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator, said at the time in a statement. “We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our Commercial Crew Program.” SpaceX would only say that it was investigating the incident.
Grainy video of the incident followed, however, showing what appeared to be chunks of debris left strewn, smoking, on the ground. The SuperDraco engines were designed by SpaceX to double as both a landing thrust system for the capsule, and as a launch escape system. They rely on a storable propellant, intended to be left in place for weeks or months, unlike the regular, cryogenically-maintained rocket fuel.
Now, SpaceX is giving more information about the event, and while details are still in short supply, the company is at least confirming the explosion. “Here’s what we can confirm,” Hans Koenigsmann, Vice President of mission assurance said in a briefing, CNBC reports. “Just prior to when we wanted to fire the SuperDraco, there was an anomaly, and the vehicle was destroyed.”
It wasn’t the first outing for that particular capsule, either. The same craft had previously been to the International Space Station, used by SpaceX for its successful “Demo-1” mission.
This new test, Koenigsmann explained, began with firing the Draco thrusters. “We fired them in two sets, each for five seconds,” the SpaceX VP said, “and that went very well.”
However that good luck didn’t hold. “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,” Koenigsmann confirmed.
The investigation is still ongoing, with SpaceX and NASA working together to figure out what, exactly, happened to the SuperDraco thrusters. Although SpaceX has completed multiple successful missions to the International Space Station, they have been with Cargo Dragon craft. While Crew Dragon – which is, as the name suggests, designed to transport up to four human passengers rather than just cargo – is based on the same core design, it has the SuperDraco thrusters while the cargo variant does not.
As such, SpaceX and NASA will go ahead on the upcoming ISS cargo mission, which will use a Falcon 9 rocket and Cargo Dragon capsule. The planned tests for human passengers in Crew Dragon, however, look almost certain to be delayed. NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.6 billion contract to build the crewed craft, and there are suggestions that tests for launches with astronauts onboard will now be pushed back into 2020.