Officials involved in last month’s failed test of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule have finally confirmed that the vehicle was destroyed as the result of a yet-to-be-determined ‘anomaly.’
In a statement that aired on NASA TV, Hans Koenigsmann said the investigation so far indicates that the failure occurred during activation of the SuperDraco propulsion system, though NASA and SpaceX are still ‘looking at all possible issues.’
This is the first either of the two aerospace giants have revealed any details about what went wrong during the April 20 test.
The comments came amid mounting speculation in the weeks after the test, which sent plumes of dark orange smoke billowing into the air all around Florida’s Cape Canaveral launch site.
Ahead of the announcement, an internal email sent to employees of a major NASA contractor and obtained by the
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A cloud of orange smoke rises over nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as seen from Cocoa Beach, Fla., Saturday, April 20, 2019, after an ‘anomaly’ caused SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to explode
‘Just keep in mind this is still very early in the investigating,’ Koenigsmann said, reading from a prepared statement.
‘The investigation is led by both SpaceX and NASA. Both teams are carefully reviewing the telemetry data and all of the data that was collected during that test.’
‘Priority of this moment is to allow the teams to conduct thorough analysis before we come to any conclusions,’ Koenigsmann added.
While NASA didn’t reveal much about the so-called anomaly itself, the space agency did note that the issue occurred during tests on the second set of thrusters, the SuperDraco system.
These thrusters will play a critical role in future launches with astronauts on board; they’re designed to safely steer the capsule away from the rocket in the case of an emergency.
The problems arose after a smooth static fire of the smaller Draco thrusters, which are also used on the original, cargo version of the Dragon capsule.
‘We powered up Dragon and it powered up as expected,’ Koenigsmann said.
‘We completed test with the Draco Thrusters. We fired them in two sets, each 4 to 5 seconds, and that went very well.
‘And then, just prior, before we went to fire the SuperDraco, there was an anomaly and the vehicle was destroyed.’
The Dragon crew capsule that exploded was the same that flew to the International Space Station a month prior. Above, it is pictured during its approach to the ISS in March
Koenigsmann confirmed there were no injuries, as previously reported, and noted that SpaceX had taken all of the proper safety measures ahead of the test.
It’s still ‘too early to determine any cause,’ he added, but said the investigation so far ‘indicates that the anomaly occurred during the activation of the Super Draco system.’
‘We are looking at all possible issues and the investigation is ongoing,’ Koenigsmann said.
‘We have no reason to believe that there is an issue with the SuperDraco themselves – those have been through about 600 tests at our test facility.
‘We continue to have high confidence in that particular thruster.’
For nearly two weeks up until this point, both NASA and SpaceX have remained tight-lipped about the failed test, even as footage circulating the internet claimed to show the moment the Crew Dragon capsule exploded.
An email sent to employees after the SpaceX footage leaked warned them not to record activity inside the Kennedy Space Center – if they do, they risk being fired
The leaked email sent to employees of the aerospace company Jacobs, who are working as contractors under NASA’s Test and Operations Support Contract, directly addressed the footage as it warned employees not to record activity inside the Kennedy Space Center – if they do, they risk being fired.
At the time of the initial incident, NASA said it’s too early to revise the target launch dates.
‘This is why we test,’ NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement the weekend of the test failure.
‘We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our commercial crew program.’
WHAT IS SPACEX’ CREW DRAGON CAPSULE?
The March 2 test, the first launch of U.S. astronauts from U.S. soil in eight years, will inform the system design and operations (Artist’s impression)
The capsule measures about 20 feet tall by 12 feet in diameter, and will carry up to 7 astronauts at a time.
The Crew Dragon features an advanced emergency escape system (which was tested earlier this year) to swiftly carry astronauts to safety if something were to go wrong, experiencing about the same G-forces as a ride at Disneyland.
It also has an Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) that provides a comfortable and safe environment for crew members.
Crew Dragon’s displays will provide real-time information on the state of the spacecraft’s capabilities, showing everything from Dragon’s position in space, to possible destinations, to the environment on board.
Those CRS-2 Dragon missions will use ‘propulsive’ landings, where the capsule lands on a landing pad using its SuperDraco thrusters rather than splashing down in the ocean.
That will allow NASA faster access to the cargo returned by those spacecraft, and also build up experience for propulsive landings of crewed Dragon spacecraft.