Dragon capsule explodes
America’s human space programme suffered a setback when a new capsule designed to carry astronauts was destroyed in an explosion during a test of its crew safety system.
Beachgoers saw a cloud of orange-brown smoke billow across Cape Canaveral air force station on Florida’s Atlantic coast, where SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule had been undergoing engine trials while mounted on a static test stand. The explosion was so intense that it was picked up on the local weather radar.
“SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests. The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly,” SpaceX said. “Our teams are investigating and working closely with our Nasa partners.”
The incident is certain to delay efforts to have US astronauts back flying US spacecraft launched from US soil later this year.
Nasa has bought seats on Russia’s Soyuz space taxis for up to $80 million each to get crew to and from the International Space Station (ISS), while designing new vehicles to replace the Space Shuttle, which was retired in 2011.
SpaceX was one of two private companies contracted by Nasa in 2014 to build spacecraft under a $6.8 billion public-private partnership known as the Commercial Crew Programme. In parallel with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Boeing is working on a capsule known as the CST-100 Starliner. Although it has also suffered setbacks, Starliner is due to fly its first uncrewed mission in August.
Four Nasa astronauts — Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley for Crew Dragon and Sunni Williams and Eric Boe for Starliner — have been training to fly the vehicles.
The Crew Dragon had completed an unmanned flight to and from the ISS last month, launching from Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as part of the process to certify it for human use.
It had been due to undergo a full “launch abort” test in July, which would have demonstrated the ability to manoeuvre the crewed capsule to safety in the event of a rocket failure. It was during a test of the capsule’s Superdraco thrusters, which power that manoeuvre, that the explosion occurred.
It was unclear whether the fault was on the spacecraft itself or whether human error or a separate issue with the test stand could be responsible. Leaked video showed the capsule sitting on its mount then suddenly disappearing in a burst of fire and smoke. Observers are heard groaning in dismay and swearing.
Garrett Reisman, director of space operations at SpaceX, said that the explosion was “a tough day for our SpaceX team. Not good.”
He added: “Thankfully no one got hurt, and with everything we learn from this anomaly Crew Dragon will be a safer vehicle for all her future crews.”
The graphic video of Crew Dragon’s explosive demise provided a visceral reminder of the risks and extreme challenges of human spaceflight.
Terry Virts, a former commander of the International Space Station and pilot of the space shuttle Endeavour, told The Times: “The best path forward is for SpaceX to own that explosion and to work closely with Nasa to make sure that never happens with crew on board.”