Few details available in the early days of SpaceX's accident investigation: Spaceflight Now

The SuperDraco thrusters in a ground test item on SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft were fired during a flyby test in 2015. Credit: SpaceX

Officials from NASA and SpaceX have spoken little this week about the apparent explosion of a Crew Dragon capsule on Saturday during a ground test at Cape Canaveral, and members of a safety advisory panel said on Thursday they will be patient as researchers review high-speed images and telemetry data and the remains to determine the cause of the accident.

A panel of security advisers discussed the explosion during a public meeting scheduled Thursday. Sandra Magnus, a former astronaut and member of the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said it is too early to know how the accident will affect the SpaceX crew capsule program.

The spacecraft involved in Saturday's accident recently returned from a six-day test flight to the International Space Station. The unmanned mission, designated Demo-1, was an exploratory flight before NASA placed the astronauts in the capsule in the next orbital launch, called Demo-2.

"Prior to the release of Demo-1, NASA and SpaceX identified configuration changes and subsequent qualification work that would be required to complete before Demo-2 was possible," said Magnus. "Despite the recent incident, there is a lot of work to be completed between the Demo-1 and a flight with crew. It is still too early to speculate on how that body of work will be modified in light of recent events. As always, the panel encourages the team to be on guard against the dangers of scheduled pressure. "

Before Saturday's explosion, SpaceX appeared on the track for the Demo-2 mission later this year, perhaps in September. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley of NASA are badigned to the first piloted mission of the Dragon of the crew, which will pave the way for the regular flights of rotation of the crew to the space station, which will end with the exclusive dependence of the Russian Soyuz ship for transporting astronauts from and down. Earth orbit

The engineers were preparing the Crew Dragon spacecraft, fresh from space after a fall of March 8 in the Atlantic Ocean, for a test flight into the atmosphere as early as July to validate the capsule's ability to escape from a rocket in flight. A different capsule is under construction for the mission of the Demo-2 crew.

"The event occurred during a static fire test conducted before the flight abortion test," said Patricia Sanders, president of ASAP. "The shot was intended to demonstrate the performance of the SuperDraco integrated system at twice the vibroacoustic life of the vehicle level for aborted environments."

The accident occurred when SpaceX tested the SuperDraco cancellation engines of Crew Dragon, which are designed to quickly push the capsule away from its Falcon 9 launcher. The cancellation capability is a key safety feature for the crew capsule.

The crew capsule completed a firing test of 12 smaller Draco maneuver propellers earlier in the day.

"The shooting of 12 Dracos service sections was successful," said Sanders. "The shooting of eight SuperDracos resulted in an anomaly, the test site was completely cleaned and the entire safety protocol was followed, the accident did not result in any injury."

The first Crew Dragon spaceship, worthy of space, is placed on a Falcon 9 rocket before its launch on March 2 to the International Space Station. The capsule was involved in an accident on April 20 in Cape Canaveral. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now

The Draco and SuperDraco boosters burn the same combination of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants, which ignite on contact. The toxic propellant was released into the air after Saturday's explosion.

A photo taken by a Florida Today photographer at a local beach showed a reddish-orange cloud billowing over the Crew Dragon test site at Cape Canaveral. These acid clouds are typically badociated with nitrogen tetroxide, the oxidant used by SuperDraco engines and a propellant commonly used in rockets and satellites.

SpaceX and NASA did not reveal any toxic vapor releases in their statements after Saturday's crash, but a dispatcher at the Emergency Operations Center in Brevard Country contacted by Spaceflight Now on Saturday night said he was not aware of no threat to the public.

Fully loaded, the Crew Dragon transports approximately 1.5 tons of the caustic propellant mixture, representing a danger to the health of humans and animals.

Sanders said NASA and SpaceX responded immediately to the accident by executing accident plans. SpaceX is leading the research with the participation and support of NASA, officials said.

"NASA has a complete view of the results of the mishap investigation, which is reviewing all data collected during the test, including high-speed images and detailed data from spacecraft telemetry, and will include the hardware badysis retrieved from the test. "said Josh Finch. , a spokesperson for NASA, in a written statement on Thursday. "We have full confidence in the SpaceX and NASA team working on the investigation to determine the cause of the setback and the design updates if necessary. "

NASA managers overseeing the space station program are also tracking the progress of the investigation to badess whether the Crew Dragon crash has any implications for SpaceX's cargo replenishment missions, the next of which is scheduled to its launch on Tuesday from Cape Canaveral, according to Susan Helms. former astronaut and member of the ASAP committee.

Cargo missions to the space station use a different version of the Dragon spacecraft without the SuperDraco cancellation engines, and officials have not suggested any delay in launching next week.

Speaking of the Crew Dragon accident consultation, Sanders said that "the first efforts are focused on saving the site, collecting data and reducing and developing the anomaly timeline."

"The investigation will take time before the root cause badysis is complete and will determine the impact on Demo 2 and the flight abortion test," Sanders said.

SpaceX and NASA have not said if the accident occurred before the SuperDraco engine was turned on, as the thrusters ignited or were being fired. SpaceX has also not confirmed whether the vehicle exploded, as was widely badumed, or the condition of the spacecraft and the test site after the accident.

The company acknowledged the accident on Saturday night and SpaceX officials confirmed on Sunday that it was the Demo-1 capsule, the last public statement by the private space firm about the accident.

The accident occurred in Landing Zone 1 of SpaceX, a site leased to the Air Force where the company lands Falcon 9 rockets that return to Earth after launching satellites. The company said on Tuesday that the next launch of the Falcon 9 rocket will likely be transferred from Landing Zone 1 to a remote-controlled ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Wayne Monteith, badociate administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial space transportation, told reporters at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday that rigorous tests on the ground will eventually make the spacecraft safer to fly.

Monteith, a retired Air Force general who commanded the 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral until last December, called the crew's Dragon crash a "catastrophic event," comparing it to an explosion of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the platform of launch in 2016 that destroyed the Israeli-owned Amos 6 communications satellite.

"We test equipment, test systems, we want to do it before we put humans on board, and frankly, you want to discover these kinds of problems now and not when you have lives at risk," Monteith said. "So, what you will find in this event was that nobody was injured, had a catastrophic event on the platform, like when Amos 6 had a problem in 2016, not just one victim, and that's what it is, public." safety."

The slow release of information since Saturday's mishap has raised concerns among some observers about the transparency of SpaceX and NASA. The SuperDraco static fire was conducted by SpaceX, a private company that also owns the hardware and intellectual property of Crew Dragon, a new paradigm for a human space flight program backed by NASA.

An editorial published by the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday requested more revelations after Saturday's accident.

"We do not know the extent of the damage to the capsule or the team involved in the test," wrote the Orlando Sentinel editorial committee. "We do not know the range of possible causes SpaceX is investigating, we do not know if SpaceX has another capsule ready to continue the program, we really do not know what happened.

"There has been no press conference, there is no opportunity to ask questions of the executives of the company, there are no detailed press releases, there are no photos or video of the damage, the public is in the dark."

The newspaper's editorial board wrote that Musk companies have no obligation to make public statements when they spend private money.

"It's not good when the public is funding their efforts, as is the case with SpaceX's manned space flight program," the editorial said.

NASA has awarded more than $ 3.1 billion in funds to SpaceX to develop the Crew Dragon spacecraft since the commercial crew initiative began in 2010. In a similar agreement, the space agency has signed a series of agreements and Commercial crew contracts with Boeing worth more than $ 4.8 billion in the same period of time.

Boeing also had problems during the ground tests of the cancellation engines on his CST-100 Starliner crew capsule.

The Starliner is scheduled for its first pilotless demonstration flight to the space station in August, followed by a test flight with three astronauts on board before the end of the year. The first Starliner missions were delayed to allow engineers to investigate and correct the cause of a fuel leak last year during a ground test of the ship's cancellation engines in New Mexico.

Boeing did not reveal the fuel leak, which delayed Starliner's first flights for months, until weeks later, when Ars Technica reported the problem for the first time.

The Aerospace Security Advisory Panel was established by Congress in 1968 after the Apollo 1 fire killed three astronauts during a ground test. The statute of the panel is to provide advice and make recommendations to the NASA administrator on safety matters.

Magnus said the security panel will be patient with the investigation, but advisers said NASA managers in the Commercial Crew Program who oversee the development of the dragon crew, not SpaceX, have the final word on when they can begin. the flights of the astronauts.

"We know there is a lot of interest regarding the recent SpaceX mishap," said Magnus. "We are patient and we allow teams to investigate. But at the end of the day, the panel supports the CCP's continued position that crewed missions will not happen until the program has received the data it needs to make sure we understand the margins, that we control those margins and that we operate on the Environment that those margins require. And we will continue to emphasize that theme as work progresses in both programs. "

"Safety is a priority for NASA and our commercial suppliers," Finch said in a statement. "We will work with our partners to fly the members of our crew when their systems are ready. We still do not know what impact this will have on our target calendars. Additional information will be published as it becomes available. "

Sandra Magnus during training for a flight on the space shuttle. Credit: NASA

The intention of SpaceX was to reuse the same Crew Dragon spacecraft that returned from the space station last month in the next flight abortion test. The teams will likely have to prepare a different vehicle for the cancellation test, a process that is almost certain to introduce delays in the Crew Dragon calendar, industry officials said.

The abortion in flight follows a pillow abortion test in 2015 that successfully proved that the Dragon's SuperDraco engines of the crew, which produce up to 16,000 pounds of thrust, could propel the capsule away from an emergency on the launch pad.

Before Saturday's mishap, SpaceX and NASA engineers continued to examine unspecified problems with the Dragon's parachute crew. There are also concerns with the ramps in the Boeing Starliner capsule.

"Both suppliers still have work in front of them before the crew operations," said Magnus. "The PCC program has specified to the contractors all the data that is required to validate the safety of the design and the delivery of this information is what will determine when the manned missions will begin, and not before."

Magnus said NASA is "converging on a resolution" of concerns regarding high-pressure helium pressure vessels contained within the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. An earlier version of the composite pressure vessel, or COPV, was blamed for the explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket on its launch pad in 2016, but SpaceX introduced a new helium tank design at a satellite launch last year. .

As SpaceX and Boeing prepare their spacecraft for the astronauts, NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, agreed to extend the duration of several space station expeditions this year and next year to ensure that US astronauts remain in the orbital complex.

NASA announced last week that astronaut Christina Koch, who launched herself into the space station from Kazakhstan in a Soyuz capsule on March 14, will remain aboard the outpost until February 2020, months longer than originally planned. Koch will return to Earth on a different Soyuz spacecraft than the one he launched aboard, and his 11-month mission will be the longest space flight by a woman.

NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, ready to take off on a Soyuz rocket on July 20, will have his expedition in space for two months until the beginning of April 2020. Like Koch, Morgan will return to Earth with a different crew to the one that throws. .

The US space agency also announced last week that Jessica Meir is badigned to a Soyuz team that will launch on September 25. NASA said earlier this year that it planned to buy two more Soyuz seats for US astronaut flights. UU this year, apparently filled by Meir, and another in early 2020.

NASA also approved an extended mission for the first Starliner test flight with astronauts. Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson and NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann originally planned to stay at the space station for several weeks, but now the trio is expected to live and work on the investigation for several months as long-term residents. duration.

Magnus said the measures to extend the duration of the mission and buy more Soyuz seats give NASA and its commercial contractors a break.

"Meanwhile, NASA has properly established a contingency plan to ensure the crew's continued access to the ISS until the end of 2020, providing a temporary margin as the crew's flight progresses," said Magnus.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.

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