SpaceX’s commercial flight capsule suffered an “anomaly” that could set back the company’s proposed crew-carrying launch to the International Space Station.
The company was conducting a series of engine tests on the Crew Dragon Saturday afternoon when smoke started to billow from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
SpaceX released a statement, which read, in part, “The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand… Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners.”
No one was injured during the tests, which focused on evaluating the performance of the spacecraft’s SuperDraco engines. While the thrusters are only to be used in the event of an emergency where the crew needs to maneuver away from a falling rocket, the tests were critical for SpaceX’s summer launch goal. The company was planning to send a crewed spacecraft to the ISS by July, but any damage to the vessel jeopardizes that launch.
An April 30th launch of the Dragon, a reusable cargo spacecraft, could also be iced after this fire since the capsule shares components with Crew Dragon.
SpaceX still has the confidence of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who wrote on Twitter, “This is why we test. We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our Commercial Crew Programs.”
The company successfully launched an unmanned Crew Dragon back in March. The capsule docked with the International Space Station before returning to Earth. The pioneering test was paving the way for the first crew-carrying launch from U.S. soil since July 2011.
NASA astronaut Anne McClain, who was aboard the ISS when the Crew Dragon docked, radioed Mission Control, saying, “Fifty years after humans landed on the moon for the first time, America has driven a golden spike on the trail to new space exploration feats through the work of our commercial partner SpaceX and all of the dedicated and talented flight controllers at NASA and our international partners.”
NASA has been dependent on Russian Soyuz rockets, which costs $80 million per seat, to shuttle American astronauts to and from the International Space Station. As an alternative, NASA signed a commercial-crew contract with SpaceX for $2.6 billion.
The plan was to have commercial flights operating by 2017, but technical issues brought on multiple delays to both SpaceX and Boeing, the second company signed to a commercial-crew contract for $4.2 billion.
It’s unclear how long SpaceX’s latest hiccup will delay their flight plans. According to space policy expert John Logsdon, it’s a little early to speculate.
“There are bound to be delays, because apparently both the capsule and the test stand were lost,” Logsdon told Space.com. “But I think it’s prudent to wait until we get a bit more information before we start talking about whether it’s weeks or months or years.”
Logsdon added that malfunctions and delays are pretty much expected.
“We’ve been down this road before,” he told Space.com “You have to remind people that we had engines blowing up during shuttle development, and, clearly, we had the Apollo 1 fire.”
Melissa’s career in writing started more than 20 years ago. Today, she lives in South Florida with her husband and two boys.