SpaceX has confirmed the loss of a crew capsule during a ground-based test firing of its thrusters at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in April 2019.
Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of mission assurance, said in a press briefing reported by CNBC that an anomaly with one of the engines destroyed the Crew Dragon capsule. No injuries occurred in the explosion and Koenigsmann said investigators haven’t yet been able to pinpoint the precise cause.
The Crew Dragon is designed by SpaceX to carry astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station (ISS) and is similar to the cargo Dragon that SpaceX has been using to carry supplies to the ISS since 2012.
Crewed missions using the newer capsule have yet to take place, though it recently took its first trip to the ISS where it stayed docked for five days before returning to Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean as planned. The capsule that blew up during the test in Florida was the same one used in that mission.
Describing the failed test in April, Koenigsmann said on Thursday that the Crew Dragon powered up as planned, with the capsule’s Draco thrusters operating as expected.
“We fired them in two sets, each for five seconds, and that went very well,” Koenigsmann said. But just before they went to fire the more powerful SuperDraco thrusters, which are designed to carry the capsule and its astronauts away from the rocket if there’s a problem during lift-off, an anomaly caused an explosion that destroyed the vehicle.
“While it is too early to confirm any cause, whether probable or crude, the initial data indicates that the anomaly occurred during the activation of the SuperDraco system,” the executive said. But he added that there was no reason to believe the incident was caused by an issue with the SuperDraco engines, which themselves have been through around 600 tests to date.
Koenigsmann was keen to point out that “the anomaly occurred during a test, not during a flight. That is why we test. If this has to happen, I’d rather it happens on the ground in the development program … we will take the lessons learned from this and I’m convinced this will help us to ensure that Crew Dragon is one of the safest human spaceflight vehicles ever built.”
Despite the setback, SpaceX plans to continue using the Crew Dragon for supply missions to the ISS as part of ongoing tests geared toward future crewed flights.