NASA, SpaceX determining root cause of Crew Dragon static fire failure

First major update on investigation since April 20 testing failure

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

(Image: Craig Bailey/Florida Today)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - In the first update from NASA since SpaceX's astronaut capsule was lost more than a month ago in a testing mishap at Cape Canaveral more than a month ago, the agency said investigators are still determining the root cause of the Crew Dragon testing failure.

On April 20, SpaceX was testing the Crew Dragon's SuperDraco engines at Landing Zone 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station when the spacecraft was destroyed, sending orange-tinted smoke above the Space Coast.

"The Crew Dragon static fire was designed as a health check of the spacecraft’s Draco systems and to demonstrate integrated system SuperDraco performance," NASA said. "During the static fire, SpaceX successfully completed a firing of 12 service section Dracos with the anomaly occurring during the activation of the SuperDraco system."

Prior to the incident, "SpaceX has tested the SuperDraco thrusters hundreds of times," according to NASA.

In a post Tuesday on NASA.gov, the agency did not reveal the anomaly's impact on the resumption of launching U.S. astronauts from American soil but said the site of the fiery mishap is safe and teams are now focusing on finding the root cause of the anomaly "which will determine the impact to commercial crew flights tests."

The destroyed capsule had recently made its first flight on Falcon 9, docked at the International Space Station and returned to Earth successfully.

SpaceX had been testing the Crew Dragon capsule to prepare for a launch abort test, during which SpaceX will launch a Falcon 9 with the spacecraft and then cause a problem to trigger the capsule to be safely jettisoned away from the rocket.

NASA said SpaceX already had several Crew Dragon vehicles in production and the company will shift the spacecraft assignments forward to meet the need.

"The spacecraft originally assigned to Demo-2, the first flight test with a crew onboard, now will be used for the company’s in-flight abort test and the first operational mission spacecraft will be used for Demo-2," according to NASA.

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.

Since 2011, the U.S. has relied on Russia to launch astronauts to the International Space Station and bring them home. Boeing received $4.2 billion to develop its Starliner CST-100 and SpaceX received $2.6 billion for its Crew Dragon capsule. Both companies' projects are in the final stages, working toward human flight certification.

Last week, while at an event at Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine acknowledged communications with the public after the mishap could have been better.

“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 in response to News 6's question about transparency.

SpaceX has been completing the initial steps of cleanup, including clearing debris from the site, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Next, the Florida DEP will begin testing the soil to determine if any more cleanup is necessary. A department spokeswoman said those tests will happen sometime in June.

SpaceX is leading the investigation into the April 20 anomaly with NASA's support.

"NASA and SpaceX remain committed to the safety of our astronaut and ground crews and will proceed with flight tests when ready," the agency said.

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