In Depth

What caused SpaceX’s Crew Dragon explosion?

Company confirms authenticity of leaked video showing spacecraft blowing up

SpaceX has confirmed reports that a prototype version of its Crew Dragon spacecraft was destroyed during an engine fire-up test. 

A video of the company’s first manned capsule exploding at a testing facility emerged on social media shortly after the incident, on 20 April. 

The grainy footage, filmed at at Florida’s Cape Canaveral launch site, was posted by YouTube channel rocket.watch.

On Thursday, SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance, Hans Koenigsmann, told reporters that the video was authentic and that the incident was being investigated, Space.com reports. 

“I hope this a relatively swift investigation at the end of the day, and I don’t want to completely preclude the current schedule,” Koenigsmann said at a press conference at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center. “It’s certainly not great news overall, but I hope we can recover [quickly].”

The “safety and performance” of the manned vessel are of “particular concern” to Nasa as well as SpaceX, says The Verge

The US space agency commissioned the company to build the vehicle as part of its Commercial Crew initiative, which aims to reduce Nasa’s reliance on the Russian Soyuz rockets currently used to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).  

SpaceX is due to launch astronauts into orbit on board the vessel later this year, following a successful unmanned voyage to the ISS in March.

What caused the explosion?

 “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 [engine] system,” Koenigsmann told the press conference, CNBC reports.

He said that just prior to the loss of the capsule, the company had “completed tests” of the thrusters, adding: “We fired them in two sets, each for five seconds, and that went very well.”

 “We have no reason to believe there is an issue with the SuperDracos themselves,” Koenigsmann insisted.

“Those have been through about 600 tests at our test facility in Texas... so there was a lot of testing on the SuperDraco and we continue to have high confidence in that particular thruster.”

Will it affect SpaceX’s manned mission plans?

Possibly. SpaceX had planned to use the Crew Dragon to send two astronauts to the ISS as early as July, but the test failure puts the mission “in serious doubt”, says Space.com.

With the investigation ongoing, it’s too early to know whether the problem will affect the Crew Dragon’s flight schedule, said Koenigsmann. 

SpaceX had already started production of other Crew Dragons before the explosion, The Verge reports.

The firm “had planned to test the vehicle’s abort system (which involves the SuperDraco thrusters) in June”, but ”that now appears very unlikely”, the tech news site adds.

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