'Too early' to tell how Crew Dragon mishap will affect astronaut launch timeline

Anomaly occurred during abort-flight test prep, safety panel chair says

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

The uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft pictured with its nose cone open revealing its docking mechanism while approaching the station’s Harmony module on March 3, 2019. (Image: NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The investigation into SpaceX's Crew Dragon mishap at Cape Canaveral is just beginning and the impact on the return to human spaceflight from U.S. soil is yet to be determined, according to NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

SpaceX was testing the astronaut capsule's SuperDraco engines Saturday on the test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral when "the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand," according to a SpaceX statement.

The anomaly was first reported by Florida Today after photographer Craig Bailey saw the red-tinted smoke billowing from the Air Force Station.

NASA's independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel met Thursday at the Marshall Space Flight Center and provided updates on the extensive human spaceflight certification both of the space agency's commercial crew providers -- Boeing with CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX with Crew Dragon -- are undergoing.

NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to develop spacecraft to launch Americans from Cape Canaveral for the first time since 2011. The U.S. currently pays Russia to launch humans to the International Space Station.

The panel also reviewed, briefly, what led up to the Crew Dragon anomoly but said the investigation is just getting underway.

"The event occurred during a static fire test prior to in-flight abort test," Patricia Sanders, the safety panel's chair said. “The firing was intended to demonstrate integrated systems SuperDraco performance ... for abort environments."

As SpaceX officials previously said, the first round of test fires went well.

"Firing of 12 service section Dracos were successfully performed, firing of eight SuperDracos resulted in an anomaly," Sanders said.

Although no one was hurt, Florida Today reports the incident released hazardous chemical compounds, including nitrogen tetroxide, into the environment.

“The special propellants for the Crew Dragon capsule – designed to carefully supply engine firings during liftoff anomalies and navigate the craft in space – are far more dangerous than those used for the typical launch,” according to the Florida Today report. 

“The test site was fully cleared, and all safety protocol was followed,” Sanders said.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner also experienced problems while testing its launch-abort engines in July 2018, which resulted in pushing the first uncrewed test flight of Starliner from April to August, reports Space.com.

The same capsule had recently returned from its first successful uncrewed flight to the Space Station, also known as Demo-1. SpaceX was preparing the spacecraft for a launch abort test, which would demonstrate how the capsule jettisons away in case of a problem during a Falcon 9 launch.

The abort test will be followed by a second test flight with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the space station.

SpaceX is leading the investigation into the fiery mishap with "active NASA participation," according to Sanders. However, she said, the cause of the problem will determine the effect on the flight test with crew, currently slated for July.

Safety panel member Sandra Magnus said during the meeting Thursday that regardless of the most recent mishap there are still technical issues SpaceX and Boeing need to resolve before the companies receive NASA's certification to launch people.

“Notwithstanding the recent incident, there is a large body of work yet to be completed between Demo-1 and a crewed flight," said Magnus, a NASA engineer and former astronaut.

Magnus said that for both SpaceX and Boeing, “there has been a lot of progress made." However, she added, "there are still technical issues to resolve as both providers are on the path to qualification.”

She also warned all parties to "be on guard against the dangers of schedule pressure."

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