SpaceX has launched an investigation into what caused the company’s new passenger vehicle, the Crew Dragon, to explode during a test over the weekend, but it’s too early to know how the accident will affect schedules moving forward. Even before the accident occurred, SpaceX had a “large body of work” to complete before it could fly people on the capsule for the first time, according to a NASA advisory panel on safety that met today.
Five days after the accident, details of what happened are still scarce. But it’s been confirmed that the explosion occurred while SpaceX was firing up some of the engines embedded within its Crew Dragon. The capsule is equipped with eight small thrusters known as SuperDraco engines, which will be crucial in case of an emergency during future flights. If something goes wrong in the middle of a launch, these engines can ignite and carry the Crew Dragon away from a malfunctioning rocket.
Five days after the accident, details of what happened are still scarce
On Saturday, April 20th, SpaceX was conducting tests of these engines on the company’s landing pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida — the site of numerous Falcon 9 rocket landings. During these tests, known as static fires, the capsule is held down while the engines ignite; this allows the company to test out the hardware while preventing the vehicle from actually going anywhere. When SpaceX fired up all eight of the SuperDraco engines, the explosion occurred, according to NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), which met today in Huntsville, Alabama. A video on Twitter, which has since been deleted, showed the capsule completely engulfed in smoke. Pictures of the event taken from afar by a Florida Today photographer also showed large plumes of smoke rising high over the coastline.
SpaceX is currently developing the Crew Dragon as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative to send the space agency’s astronauts to the International Space Station on privately made vehicles. The capsule that was being tested on Saturday had already passed a huge milestone in March during its first test flight, which sent it to the International Space Station. The vehicle proved it could dock with the station and then land safely in the Atlantic Ocean after a week-long stay in space.
SpaceX had tentatively planned to fly the first passengers on a Crew Dragon this July, a date that was far from confirmed before the accident. The flight will almost certainly not happen by this summer now.
ASAP noted that all safety procedures were followed after the accident, and no injuries have been reported. “NASA and SpaceX immediately executed mishap plans per the agency and the company’s guidelines, and SpaceX is leading the investigation, with active NASA participation,” the chair of ASAP, Patricia Sanders, said during the meeting. Right now, SpaceX is focused on salvaging the accident site, collecting data, and coming up with a timeline of events leading up to the accident. It could be a while before we know how the company will recover. “The investigation will take time before the root cause analysis is completed,” Sanders said.
The explosion is already having some effects on the company. SpaceX is set to launch a cargo mission to the International Space Station next weekend from Cape Canaveral, but the company will have to land its rocket on a drone ship afterward since the landing pad is out of commission at the moment.
The explosion is already having some effects on the company
It also seems likely that SpaceX will need to fly something else for an upcoming milestone test of the Crew Dragon Capsule. SpaceX was planning to fly the Crew Dragon capsule that it was testing last weekend again over the summer, to test out the emergency abort system (which seems to have been involved in the failure). Known as the abort test, SpaceX will launch a Crew Dragon and fire up the SuperDracos, proving the engines can carry the capsule away from the rocket as designed. That test is supposed to happen before SpaceX can put people on the Crew Dragon for the first time.
The extent of the damage to the capsule is unknown, but based on the imagery that came out after the accident, that particular Crew Dragon doesn’t seem to be in good shape. Neither SpaceX nor NASA has divulged a path forward for testing.
In addition to figuring out the cause of the accident, it sounds like there is still quite a lot of work for the company to accomplish before it can put people on board its vehicle. Even before the accident occurred, NASA and the company identified a lot of changes and tasks that need to be completed before the Crew Dragon can carry astronauts.
“Notwithstanding the recent incident, there is a large body of work yet to be completed.”
“Notwithstanding the recent incident, there is a large body of work yet to be completed between [the uncrewed flight test] and a crewed flight,” Sandy Magnus, a former NASA astronaut and member of ASAP, said at the meeting. “It’s still too early to speculate on how that body of work will alter based on recent events.” The panel also advised that SpaceX and NASA’s other Commercial Crew partner, Boeing, should not be led by pressures to keep on schedule. NASA is still able to fly its astronauts to the ISS on Russia’s Soyuz vehicle, and it will be able to keep the station staffed through mid-2020. So there is still some time remaining to get the Commercial Crew vehicles ready for crewed missions.
In the meantime, NASA says it is sticking by SpaceX as it figures out what happened. “We have full confidence in SpaceX,” NASA spokesperson Stephanie Martin told the Orlando Sentinel. “Additional information will be released as it is available.”