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SpaceX’s new passenger spacecraft suffers failure during engine test

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Whatever happened caused lots of smoke

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which flew during its first test flight in March
Image: SpaceX

On Saturday, a test version of SpaceX’s new passenger spacecraft, the Crew Dragon, suffered from some kind of failure during an engine test at the company’s landing site in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The accident resulted in large plumes of smoke rising from the company’s facility on the Florida coast, according to Florida Today. NASA astronauts were supposed to take their first flight on the spacecraft in July.

“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,” a SpaceX spokesperson said in a statement to The Verge. “The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand.” The event is now under control, and no one sustained any injuries, the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing tells Florida Today, which oversees launches out of Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX has been testing the Crew Dragon to prepare the vehicle to take NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, as part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program. In March, SpaceX successfully launched a Crew Dragon capsule for the first time on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, sending the spacecraft on a test flight to the ISS. During the mission, the uncrewed capsule docked with the space station for less than a week and then successfully landed in the Atlantic Ocean afterward using a series of four parachutes. The test flight demonstrated that that the Crew Dragon was capable of doing all the major tasks it needed to do, and it was a major hurdle that SpaceX needed to cross before putting people on the vehicle.

Since then, SpaceX has been preparing for its next big milestone, a test of the Crew Dragon’s emergency abort system. The capsule is equipped with eight small engines known as SuperDracos that can fire during a launch and remove the Crew Dragon from a rocket that might be experiencing some kind of failure after launch. SpaceX was scheduled to test out this system during a flight sometime in June, by firing the engines on the Crew Dragon a few minutes after takeoff. SpaceX planned to use the same Crew Dragon test vehicle that it flew in March, which was being tested today, according to a source familiar with the matter. SpaceX was testing out the SuperDracos during today’s accident, though the company did not clarify exactly what was to blame for the failure.

The company says it is looking into the problem with the help of NASA. “Ensuring that our systems meet rigorous safety standards and detecting anomalies like this prior to flight are the main reasons why we test,” SpaceX said in a statement. “Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners.” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine also confirmed the agency is looking into the issue.

Now, today’s event will likely change SpaceX’s schedule moving forward, as the company investigates the failure. In the meantime, NASA’s second Commercial Crew partner, Boeing, is scheduled to fly its passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, for the first time without a crew in August, followed by the first crewed flight of the vehicle sometime before the end of the year. Before this event, SpaceX was poised to fly crews first, but now the two companies may be more lined up in schedule.

Additional reporting by Sean O’Kane.

Update April 20th, 8:12PM ET: This post was updated to include a statement from the NASA administrator and clarify the Crew Dragon used for the test.