SpaceX has finally confirmed what we all suspected — its Dragon II spacecraft was totally destroyed during a test late last month. The admission comes from the company’s vice president of mission assurance Hans Koenigsmann. During a recent press event, Koenigsmann addressed the loss of the capsule and provided the first official details on the “anomaly,” as SpaceX calls it.
The private spaceflight company founded by Elon Musk is one of two firms developing spacecraft for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program along with Boeing. SpaceX was riding high on recent successes including the Dragon II test flight to the International Space Station (ISS) and the first commercial Falcon Heavy launch when tragedy struck on April 20th. The only official word at the time was that an anomaly had occurred on the test stand. Observers noted a cloud of smoke rising from Cape Canaveral. Later, a leaked video showed the capsule exploding.
Koenigsmann seemed to confirm the issue arose from the Dragon’s SuperDraco thrusters. The cargo Dragon and Dragon II both have smaller Draco engines, and those tested fine on the spacecraft. However, something happened as SpaceX prepared to fire the SuperDraco engines. These engines use hypergolic liquid fuel to produce enough thrust to pull the crew capsule away from a Falcon 9 rocket in an emergency. SpaceX also has aspirations to use them for propulsive landings. The SuperDracos had not actually started firing at the time of the explosion, so the cause remains unclear. Koenigsmann says it’s too early to tell what happened.
The vessel on the test stand that day was the same one that flew to the ISS several weeks before. SpaceX recovered it from the ocean for additional testing. The best case scenario is that it became damaged during the landing or recovery operation. NASA will use a fresh Dragon II for each crewed flight to the ISS, so this may not affect mission safety. Although, the loss of the Dragon II could also point to an undiscovered flaw in the design that could be a ticking time bomb. SpaceX is doing several innovative things with the Dragon II including the use of 3D printing to produce the SuperDraco combustion chamber. The sheer fact that SpaceX’s launch abort system is liquid-fueled is unusual.
NASA and SpaceX are working to investigate the incident, but the evidence is in pieces strewn across the testing platform. Boeing had to push back its CST-100 launch timeline by months following a fuel leak last year. SpaceX could be looking at a much longer delay. Its human-crewed test flight might not take place until 2020 at this rate.