Communication after SpaceX Crew Dragon anomaly 'was poor,' NASA Administrator says

KSC director Bob Cabana: SpaceX doesn't keep NASA in dark

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

File photo: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk answer questions after the SpaceX Falcon 9 Demo-1 launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - More than a month after SpaceX's astronaut spacecraft was destroyed during a test that sent smoke billowing above Cape Canaveral, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine acknowledged communications with the public after that mishap could have been better.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule, which will fly NASA's astronauts to and from the International Space Station, was destroyed April 20 during a test fire of the capsule's SuperDraco engines at Landing Zone 1 and 2. Flames engulfed the capsule a half second before the launch-abort thrusters were to fire.

Bridenstine commented on the incident Thursday during an event at Kennedy Space Center in response to a question from News 6 about transparency between NASA's commercial partners, including SpaceX, and taxpayers.

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop spacecraft to launch U.S. astronauts. Boeing received $4.2 billion to develop its Starliner CST-100 spacecraft and SpaceX received $2.6 billion for its Dragon V2 spacecraft, known as Crew Dragon.

"First off, they're not secret with us," KSC Director Bob Cabana said about SpaceX.

"There is no secrecy with NASA we are totally engaged with the folks on the investigation team. SpaceX is working very closely with us," Cabana said, adding he would "have no concern as a taxpayer."

Bridenstine did not comment further about the progress of the investigation or the incident itself but did say that communication after the mishap was lacking.

“I will tell you that communication on this particular incident was poor and next time, it will not go that way. I will be very clear about that,” Bridenstine said.

NASA included Cabana's response but not the administrator's in the recorded news conference later posted on the agency's website.

SpaceX and NASA called the testing failure an "anomaly" after Florida Today first reported the orange-tinted smoke coming from the Air Force Station.

This is the statement SpaceX released the day of the incident:

“SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand."

About two weeks later, SpaceX Vice President Hans Koenigsmann confirmed that its crew capsule was destroyed.

“There was an anomaly and the vehicle was destroyed," Koenigsmann said on May 2.

Landing Zone 1 and 2, where the incident occurred, has been unavailable as a landing zone for SpaceX's rocket boosters due to toxic fuel contamination, clean up and the investigation.

In the last two weeks, SpaceX has been completing the initial steps of cleanup, including clearing debris from the site, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection ombudsman Ashley Gardner.

“The next step in the process is to begin testing the soil to determine if any necessary cleanup or remediation actions are necessary," Gardner said in an email. Those tests will happen next month.

Prior to the testing mishap, the same Crew Dragon capsule successfully docked at the space station’s new international docking adapter and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean after a six-day stay.

The lost Crew Dragon capsule was being prepared for a launch abort test from the Cape. During which SpaceX will launch a Falcon 9 with the spacecraft then cause a problem to trigger the capsule to be safely jettisoned away from the rocket.

The launch abort was the final test scheduled before for a launch with NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, which was slated for this summer.

It's still unclear what effect this will have on the return to launching humans from U.S. soil. 

During an April 25 meeting of NASA's independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, NASA engineer and former astronaut Sandra Magnus said that regardless of the most recent mishap there are still technical issues both SpaceX and Boeing need to resolve before the companies receive NASA's certification to launch people.

“There has been a lot of progress made" for both companies, Magnus said, but added, "there are still technical issues to resolve as both providers are on the path to qualification.”

Boeing is currently targeting August for the first Orbital Flight Test of Starliner on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, pushed back from April. There will be no crew on that launch and docking to the space station. A crewed flight is possible in late 2019, if all goes well, according to NASA.

NASA has not updated its commercial crew flight timeline since the April 20 Crew Dragon incident, simply saying "NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and SpaceX are reevaluating target test dates."

News 6 emailed SpaceX representatives for comment for this story.

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