Just six weeks after plunging into the Atlantic Ocean after a Demo-1 test flight, the same SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft was set to conduct several static fire tests on Saturday to see if the capsule propulsion systems were functioning properly ahead of an on-board test abortion planned for the summer. However, during the tests, the spacecraft suffered a significant anomaly. The incident is likely to lead to further delays with the NASA Commercial Crew Program.
On March 8 – after four days of stay at the International Space Station – Crew Dragon returned to Earth with a dip in the Atlantic Ocean. The mission was an unmanned demonstration flight – called Demo-1 – intended to certify the Dragon Crew for manned spaceflight.
Immediately after returning to the port, SpaceX technicians began preparing the capsule for the in-flight abortion test. The test will cause Crew Dragon to fire its SuperDraco thrusters to move away from a Falcon 9 rocket – demonstrating the ability to abort the spacecraft in the event of an anomaly with the launch vehicle.
To prepare for the abortion test, it is now understood that unrevealed static fires of the Crew Dragon thrusters were scheduled to occur on Saturday morning at Cape Canaveral. In terms of the location of the tests, SpaceX originally planned to build a test stand for Crew Dragon near Landing Zone 1.
It is not immediately clear if this proposed test bench should be used during planned static fires on Saturday, although the test took place in the vicinity of SpaceX's Landing Area 1.
According to sources, the test Saturday was to have several events. First, the vehicle's Draco propellants – mainly used for maintenance of stations in orbit – should be fired on the test bench on two separate occasions. That would be followed by a shot of SuperDraco's thrusters only an hour or two later. SuperDraco propellants are used to perform abortions in flight.
At some point during the Saturday test, a major anomaly occurred on the test bench. In a statement to NASASpaceflight.com, SpaceX provided the following information: "Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test bench at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The initial tests were completed successfully, but the final test resulted in an anomaly in the test bench.
"Ensuring that our systems meet stringent safety standards and detecting such anomalies before flight are the main reasons we test. Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners. "
Based on the source information, the fact that the anomaly occurred during the final test suggests that the anomaly probably had to do with the firing of SuperDraco engines.
Although the specificities behind the anomaly have yet to be confirmed, the severity of the rumors will likely lead to delays with NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP). Under the CCP, Boeing and SpaceX were given the task of returning America's manned spaceflight capacity, providing crew rotation flights to and from the International Space Station.
Prior to today's anomaly, SpaceX was considered by many to be ahead of Boeing in the program with a greater chance of flight crew by the end of the year. Boeing is currently working on some of its own setbacks. Now, with today's incident, the entire Commercial Team schedule was questioned.
This is worrying as the United States has bought seats on the Russian Soyuz rocket to fill the gap between the end of the Space Shuttle and the Commercial Team that are coming into operation. Unfortunately, NASA will soon run out of seats, potentially creating problems for NASA if the Commercial Team does not go online next year.
It will probably take several weeks for the full impact of the anomaly to be understood as teams will have to spend time reviewing the data and determining the way forward.
Prior to the incident this weekend, SpaceX's progress on the Crew Dragon spacecraft flew by. The company successfully completed a test flight in orbit – called the Demo-1 mission – in March this year. The test was almost perfect, with no major incidents reported.
So the company was able to prepare the capsule for weekend testing just six weeks after the same Crew Dragon spent about an hour in the corrosive saltwater environment after falling off the Demo-1 mission.
If Saturday's static fires had been planned, SpaceX would have been targeted for the in-flight abortion test by mid-July.
The abortion test will see a Falcon 9 rocket with a standard early stage and a nearly standard second stage – a notable MVac engine being the notable difference – launching of the Kennedy Space Center with the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Then during the period of maximum aerodynamic pressure, Crew Dragon will perform an abortion.
The abortion sequence will see a firing of SuperDraco engines followed by the launch of the vehicle's trunk. Then the parachute unfolding sequence will begin to prepare the spacecraft for diving in the Atlantic Ocean.
According to the Environmental Assessment for the test, the launch vehicle will be destroyed after the Dragar Crew performs its abortion.
While Musk previously stated that the test would be the fourth flight of the first stage of the B1048 Booster, it is now known that the plans have changed and the launch will feature the fourth flight of the B1046 – the first Booster of Block 5.
The B1048 is believed to have been unveiled for SpaceX's first dedicated constellation of the Starlink internet constellation, scheduled for no later than May.
Once SpaceX teams have solved the problem as of this week with the Dragon Crew and have regained the hardware readiness for the flight abortion test, the next goal will be the all-important Demo-2 mission.
Demo-2 will see NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launch a new Crew Dragon on the International Space Station to certify SpaceX for crew rotation operational missions at the Station.
The exact timeframe for the Demo-2 mission is currently under evaluation by NASA and SpaceX teams. However, prior to today's anomaly, it was understood that much of late summer or early fall was the earliest possible time that launch could occur.