We Still Know Painfully Little About The SpaceX Capsule 'Anomaly' And Its Impact On NASA's Crew Program

A SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule undergoing a hover test in 2015. (Image: SpaceX)

It’s been nearly a week since an anomaly triggered the engine failure of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule during testing. Few details have been disclosed, and it isn’t yet clear how the incident might delay NASA’s ability to deliver astronauts to the ISS. This week, a NASA safety panel remained tight-lipped, saying an investigation is now underway.

At Cape Canaveral last weekend, SpaceX conducted a static-fire test of eight SuperDraco engines on the Crew Dragon Capsule. The test did not go well.

The capsule became engulfed in flames, and plumes of thick, orange-tinged smoke could be seen for kilometres. There were even reports of an explosion. Mercifully, no injuries were reported.

The test may have resulted in the loss of the capsule, but we don’t know for sure (it’s probably toast). We also don’t know if any toxic fumes were released into the environment (seems likely), or if the incident will affect NASA’s Commercial Crew program (also likely).

All we can really be certain of, and as stated in a SpaceX press release issued shortly after the April 21 incident, is that an “anomaly” occurred. Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. NASA hasn’t added much to the story either.

The surprising dearth of information in the wake of the incident, and the failure of SpaceX and NASA to engage the public, is not going over well, as evidenced by a recent Orlando Sentinel article penned by its editorial board, who wrote:

“Anomaly” is a vague industry buzzword that tells the public zilch about what happened to a program that the federal government is spending billions on to get astronauts back into space on American hardware rather than hitching rides on Russian rockets.

We don’t know the extent of the damage to the capsule or equipment involved in the test. We don’t know the range of possible causes SpaceX is investigating. We don’t know if SpaceX has another capsule ready to continue the program. We really don’t know what happened.

There’s been no press conference. No opportunity to ask questions of company executives. No detailed news releases. No photos or video of the damage. The public is in the dark.

The secretive aspects of Elon Musk’s ventures is fine when he’s spending his own money (or investors’ money) to build electric cars or bore tunnels through the ground. It’s not fine when the public is bankrolling his efforts, as it is with SpaceX’s crewed spaceflight program.

Ouch.

NASA finally held a public meeting this week to address the incident, though few details were disclosed, as SpaceNews reports. The meeting at the Marshall Space Flight Center involved the space agency’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), an independent body chaired by former NASA astronaut Patricia Sanders.

During the meeting, Sanders rehashed much of what we already know. The April 21 exercise was a test of the Crew Dragon’s eight oversized Draco thrusters — a key component of the capsule’s abort system.

In the event of an emergency, these larger boosters, known as SuperDracos, will jettison the Crew Dragon away from a failing rocket during launch (here’s a video of the SuperDracos in action). The capsule is also equipped with a dozen small Draco thrusters, which are used for altitude control and orbital manoeuvring.

This past weekend’s test was done in preparation for a scheduled in-flight test, which is supposed to happen later this winter — a test that now appears to be in jeopardy.

Speaking at the ASAP meeting, and as CNet reports, Sanders said the test of the smaller Dracos was successful, but she confirmed that the firing of the eight SuperDracos resulted in the anomaly.

The “firing was intended to demonstrate integrated system SuperDraco performance at two times vehicle level vibro-acoustic life for abort environments,” said Sanders, as reported by SpaceflightNow.

The panelists did not disclose the stage at which the anomaly occurred during the test, or whether the Crew Dragon exploded.

SpaceX, said Sanders, is now leading the investigation, with NASA actively participating, reports SpaceNews. The initial stage will involve gathering data and the reconstruction of the timeline.

The investigators will be looking at high-speed imagery, spacecraft telemetry data and the analysis of the damaged Crew Dragon, according to a written statement issued by NASA this week.

As to the impact this incident might have on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the panel was vague.

“We know that there’s a lot of interest regarding the recent SpaceX mishap,” ASAP member Sandra Magnus said at the meeting, according to SpaceNews. “We are patient, and allow the teams to investigate.”

This latest setback comes at a time when things appeared to be going well for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. On 3 March 2019, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket delivered an uncrewed Crew Dragon to the ISS. It successfully returned to Earth several days later, splashing down in the Atlantic on March 9.

The Crew Dragon used during the April 21 test was the same model used during this important pathfinding mission, known as Demo-1. The first crewed test of the capsule, Demo-2, is scheduled for July 25, with reports suggesting the mission had already been pushed back to late September or early October before the failed test this past weekend, according to SpaceNews.

“Prior to the Demo-1 launch, NASA and SpaceX identified configuration changes and subsequent qualification work that would be required to be completed before Demo-2 was possible,” said Magnus.

“Notwithstanding the recent incident, there is a large body of work yet to be completed between Demo-1 and a crewed flight. It’s still too early to speculate on how that body of work will alter based on recent events. As always, the panel encourages the team to be on guard against the dangers of schedule pressure.”

The failed test and ensuing investigation could cause further delays to the Commercial Crew Program, which is working to restore America’s ability to independently deliver astronauts to the International Space Station and other locations in space.

The US has not had this capacity since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, and has had to pay Russia to hitch rides on Soyuz rockets instead.

At the meeting this week, Sanders said the results of the investigation will determine the impact of the failed test on the Demo-2 timeline, saying no crewed missions will happen until the Commercial Crew Program receives the “data they require,” according to CNet.

On a positive note, the incident will likely have no impact on cargo missions to the ISS. A different model of Crew Dragon, not equipped with SuperDraco thrusters, is used for supply missions. A SpaceX launch scheduled for Tuesday, April 30 from Cape Canaveral is going ahead as planned.

As for learning more about this Crew Dragon “anomaly”, we’re just going to have to hurry up and wait.

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