The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft was destroyed in a test accident, the company confirms



A senior SpaceX official confirmed on Thursday that an "anomaly" during a ground test on April 20 destroyed a Crew Dragon spacecraft with the intention of clearing the way for the launch of two astronauts this summer. SpaceX vice president Hans Koenigsmann added that it is not yet clear how long the program will be delayed or even if a pilot mission could take off before the end of the year.

"We're going to learn a lot, and I think this will make the program safer at the end of the day," Koenigsmann, vice president of construction and reliability at SpaceX, told reporters. "In terms of programming, our main goal now is to finish the investigation and resolve this anomaly. We'll see what comes of it. "

While he declined to speculate how long the failure investigation might last, he said: "I hope this is a relatively quick investigation, I do not want to completely exclude the current calendar, but it's certainly not great news for the general calendar."

The Crew Dragon spacecraft launched a successful pilotless test flight to the International Space Station in March and was preparing for an in-flight test of its emergency abortion system, designed to quickly fire and propel the spacecraft away from a propeller that does not work properly, when something went terribly wrong.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon spacecraft was successfully launched on March 2, 2019, on an unmanned flight to the International Space Station. The spacecraft was destroyed on April 20, 2019, during a ground test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, leaving the first piloted flight, originally planned for the summer, pending the results of an investigation. Credit: SPACEX

In the company's first detailed update, Koenigsmann said the mishap occurred approximately half a second before the eight Super Draco cancellation engines of the Crew Dragon were fired at a test stand at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

"On the test bench, we turned on Dragon, we turned it on as expected, we completed the tests with the Draco thrusters (maneuvering), the smaller thrusters that are also in the cargo Dragon," said Koenigsmann. "And just before we wanted to fire the Super Dracos there was an anomaly and the vehicle was destroyed."

Spectators along the beaches in the area saw clouds of reddish orange smoke over the Air Force station after the incident, an indication to veteran observers of the launch that toxic hypergolic thrusters had been launched, such as those driving the propellers of the Dragon of the crew.

As is the standard procedure for such tests, the area was evacuated well in advance and the winds blew into the sea. There were no injuries.

"Because this (was a) ground test, we have a lot of data, a lot of vehicle data and ground sensors," said Koenigsmann. "It is too early to confirm any cause, either probable or root, but the initial data indicates that an anomaly occurred during the activation of the Super Draco system. That said, we are badyzing all possible problems and the investigation is ongoing. "

He said the cancellation engines have been turned on hundreds of times in other tests and that "we have no reason to believe that there is a problem with the Super Dracos".

The thrusters are fed to those engines by the flow of helium from multiple high-pressure tanks, rapidly pushing the fuel and oxidant through a complex network of lines and valves. Some of the tanks survived the accident and are still pressurized, which prevents the researchers from completing the hardware recovery at the test site.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was spectacularly destroyed during a ground test in 2016 when a high pressure helium tank, known as a carbon pressure vessel, or COPV, broke catastrophically. But Koenigsmann said the tanks used in the Crew Dragon had a different design and operated in a different environment. And all of them have been accounted for.

"We have tons of data, but we do not currently have anything we can say, oh, it's very likely that this or that," he said. "We thought, I think, that he was not a Super Draco propeller, but that's all I can say right now."

NASA and SpaceX hoped to launch a different Crew Dragon in late July, taking NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on a test flight to the International Space Station. That mission would have been the first launch of US astronauts aboard an American rocket from US soil since the space shuttle retired in 2011.

Boeing is also building commercial crew ships under contract with NASA, and an initial pilot flight to the space station is expected later this year or early next.

"We talked to Bob and Doug, of course," Koenigsmann said, referring to Behnken and Hurley. "They were very understanding and approached us, I almost feel that they are encouraging us at this moment, and they are helping us to maintain our motivation and not fall into a hole, basically, and we worry about this, but we stay focused."

In that context, NASA and SpaceX are moving forward with plans to launch a Falcon 9 rocket early Friday on a flight to deliver nearly 5,500 pounds of equipment and supplies to the space station. The launch from platform 40 at the Air Force station is scheduled for 3:11 a.m. EDT, at the moment when the Dragon cargo ship can be fired directly at the plane of the station's orbit.

The Dragon of load does not count on a system of cancellation of Super Draco and the managers of the NASA agreed with the engineers of SpaceX in which the launch could continue.

"At the end of the day, we did not see any change in our overall measurable risk when entering the mission," said Kenny Todd, operations and integration manager for NASA's space station. "We feel very comfortable moving forward with this particular mission."

The cargo flight, the 17th for SpaceX under its current contract with NASA, would originally be launched earlier this week, but the mission was delayed when an electrical distribution box aboard the space station malfunctioned early Monday, toppling to two of the eight solar sites in the laboratory. energy circuits

The malfunction of the main bus switching unit No. 3 also deactivated one of the two circuits that feed the robotic arm of the space station. Because the arm is used to capture and dock the Dragon spacecraft, NASA chose to delay the launch until the flight controllers could use the arm to install a spare unit.

That work was completed early Thursday, restoring redundant power in the robot's arm and clearing the way for the Dragon's launch on Friday, weather permitting. Forecasters predicted a 60 percent chance of a delay in launch due to thick clouds and rain, but conditions were expected to improve to 70 percent "go" on Saturday.

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