On Saturday, April 20, 2019 SpaceX was busy testing the same Crew Dragon capsule that successfully completed the Demo-1 mission to the International Space Station last month. The public wasn’t aware that SpaceX was doing tests of the capsule’s Draco and Super Draco thrusters to prepare for the upcoming in-flight abort test that was scheduled for June or July. Beach goers in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral Landing Zone 1 got a surprise when a sudden cloud of orange smoke was seen billowing from the area. News of the accident slowly began to trickle out Saturday afternoon. Not much was released by SpaceX (as of this writing) about the accident. The only thing official from SpaceX was a blanket statement that reads as follows:
“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. The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand. Ensuring that our systems meet rigorous safety standards and detecting anomalies like this prior to flight are the main reasons why we test. Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners.”
What is known at this time is that the capsule that was destroyed was indeed the same that completed the Demo-1 mission last month and that during the final test, which is believed to be of the bigger Super Draco thrusters, was in the final seconds when the explosion of the capsule occurred. There was an unofficial video of the incident that surfaced the next day. It is not known if the Super Draco thrusters actually fired or not. SpaceX founder Elon Musk as well as the company has been extremely tight lipped in the days following, but hopefully, SpaceX will display the kind of transparency that it had in the past after the past incidents, which were the CRS-7 in-flight explosion (June 2015) and the AMOS-6 static fire, pad RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly) in September 2016. After those accidents, the cause and fix were found and implemented in relatively short order after a 6-month, and 4.5-month stand down respectively.
What are Super Draco thrusters? They are the thrusters that would be used in an escape situation from a failing Falcon 9 rocket that would pull the capsule from the malfunctioning rocket to a safe distance and it would parachute to a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. Dragon 2 has smaller thrusters called Draco thrusters that are used for station keeping on orbit and for small maneuvers. These powerful thrusters were going to be put to the test this summer to see if they could do the job in the upcoming in-flight abort test. About a minute into the flight, the Super Draco thrusters would fire to send Dragon 2 on a trajectory away from the Falcon 9 (which is believed to be destroyed by the forces of the abort) to prove that the thrusters could be trusted as an escape system in all areas of the flight. This test would occur during the period known as MaxQ or maximum dynamic pressure, where the stresses on the vehicle are at its peak. The thrusters use hypergolic hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants that ignite when mixed together. There are eight of these Super Draco thrusters clustered together in pairs that make up four modules that would operate together during a launch emergency. The orange cloud is believed to be the cloud containing the hypergolic propellants that are extremely corrosive and dangerous if anyone came in contact with them. Fortunately, no one was injured during the incident.
What impact this will have on the Commercial Crew schedule is not known, but I’m sure it’s safe to say that it will likely delay the first launch of American astronauts from American soil into 2020. Before the accident on Saturday, SpaceX was believed to be the front runner in getting American’s back on flying on American-made rockets for the first time since July 2011. NASA may be forced to yet again order seats for astronauts to fly on the Russian Soyuz rocket to continue American presence on the Space Station.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine went on Twitter and tweeted the following message:
“The NASA and SpaceX teams are assessing the anomaly that occurred today during a part of the Dragon Super Draco Static Fire Test at SpaceX Landing Zone 1 in Florida. This is why we test. We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our Commercial Crew Program.”
More updates will follow when official updates on the investigation and the impacts of the downrange Commercial Crew launch dates become known.