SpaceX finally confirmed Thursday that its crew capsule was destroyed in ground testing two weeks ago, noting that this is “not great news” as the company aims to launch astronauts this year.
Hans Koenigsmann, a company vice president, told reporters it’s too soon to know what went wrong during the April 20 test or whether the crew Dragon capsule’s test flight in March, excluding astronauts, contributed to the loss of functionality.
The capsule burst into flames a half-second before the launch-abort thrusters were to fire. SpaceX still cannot access the testing area at Cape Canaveral for safety reasons, Koenigsmann told reporters. He added that the company does not want to disturb any evidence that could provide clues as to what caused the failure.
Earlier SpaceX confirmed that the smaller, simpler cargo version of the Dragon capsule is safe to fly to the International Space Station. The company was on track to launch a Falcon rocket with station supplies early Friday morning in the US, although approaching storms threatened yet another delay. Earlier in the week, the flight was postponed by a major power shortage at the space station.
An old power-switching unit failed Monday, slashing the space station’s power by 25 percent and ruling out any deliveries. By Thursday, flight controllers had replaced the box and restored full power to the orbiting outpost. However, because the April 20 accident occurred so close to SpaceX’s landing site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the booster for the cargo launch cannot return there following lift-off. The first-stage booster was aiming for a barge stationed about 12 miles offshore, much closer than usual.
Another Dragon capsule is to be tested this summer, to see how the SuperDraco thrusters work in an aborted flight. There are more crew Dragons in the process of being built that can be used for this test, according to Koenigsmann. The Company vice president still hopes SpaceX can launch two NASA astronauts to the space station this year, adding that the impact to the schedule will depend on the results of the accident investigation.
NASA has contracted with SpaceX as well as Boeing to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, but for now, NASA will transport their crews via Russian rockets, which are expensive for the agency.
“It’s certainly not great news for the schedule overall, but I hope we can recover,” Koenigsmann said the company has been in touch with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — who will be on board for the crew Dragon’s next test flight to the space station.
Boeing also has encountered recent delays with its Starliner crew capsules, however, the company is striving to launch a capsule without astronauts to the space station by the end of August.