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A dark cloud on the horizon of the commercial crew

Dragon Crew Test

A prototype of the SpaceX Crew Dragon during a previous vehicle SuperDraco thrusters test, implicated in the incident at Cape Canaveral on April 20. (Credit: SpaceX)

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It was not clear at the outset what caused the black cloud on sunny Saturday afternoon on Florida's space coast, but it could not have been good.

That afternoon, surfers and other beach goers, as well as a newspaper photographer, saw a dark reddish cloud emerge from somewhere near Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Without releases or other trial activities released in advance, what initially caused this was a mystery.

By the end of the day, base officials and SpaceX had announced what had happened: the company was testing its Crew Dragon vehicle in Landing Zone 1 (the former Launch Complex 13 at Cape Canaveral) when something went wrong.

"We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and move forward safely with our Commercial Team Program," said Bridenstine.

"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 on the test bench, "a company spokesman said in an e-mailed statement. "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. "

More than a week later, this is the extent of what SpaceX has disclosed about the incident, or anomaly or misfortune. The company did not provide additional updates on the event or the status of the ongoing investigation. This has become a matter of some frustration for some who believe that, as a NASA-funded program, the company should be more open.

"NASA should not allow such a secret, unless a program involves military secrets, which it does not," he argued. Orlando Sentinel in an editorial last Wednesday. The agency, he argued, should require SpaceX and the other commercial company, Boeing, "to be more transparent and accessible."

NASA does not seem to be pushing SpaceX to provide more information. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement following the incident that NASA and SpaceX were working to assess the incident. "We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and move forward safely with our Commercial Team Program," he said.

His statement confirmed one of the main aspects of the incident: it occurred during a test of the spacecraft's SuperDraco propellers, designed to fend off the spacecraft from its Falcon 9 launch vehicle in an emergency. (Thrusters were also envisioned to provide propulsive landings from the ground spacecraft, something SpaceX has since postponed indefinitely in favor of spatters.) The propellants use the combination of hypergolic propellants of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide; the reddish color of the cloud appeared indicative of nitrogen tetroxide.

The incident also surfaced during a meeting last Thursday by the Aerospace Security Advisory Panel (ASAP), NASA's independent security committee, but they offered little in terms of new details about the incident. The test came after tests of the smaller Draco propellants from the spacecraft were successfully completed, ASAP president Patricia Sanders said. "The shooting of eight SuperDracos resulted in an anomaly," she said, but did not detail the details of the test or the resulting anomaly.

SpaceX is leading the investigation from the anomaly, she said, with NASA involvement as they worked to secure the test site and collect data. She and other panelists called for patience, giving investigators time to study what happened. "We know there is a lot of interest in the recent SpaceX crash," said Sandra Magnus, a member of ASAP and a former astronaut. "We are patient and we allow teams to investigate."

Although the details about the accident remain scarce, the implications of this are a bit clearer. The Dragon Commando capsule involved in the incident was the same as the unmanned Demo-1 test flight flown in March. The extent of the damage he suffered was not reported, but was probably badly damaged, if not destroyed.

The capsule was expected to fly again in June in a flight abortion test where it would have fired its SuperDraco thrusters to move away from a Falcon 9 after takeoff. This long-delayed test was a milestone not from its ongoing commercial crew development contract, but from a previously funded Space Law Contract.

If, in fact, this capsule requires significant repairs, or if it is irreparably damaged, this would delay this in-flight abortion test, perhaps for an extended period. That could, in turn, delay the Demo-2 crew flight to the space station, involving two NASA astronauts.

"Despite the recent incident, there is a lot of work to be completed between Demo-1 and a manned flight," Magnus said.

ASAP, at its meeting last week, declined to speculate on the impact of the anomaly on the timelines. "The investigation will take time before the root cause analysis is completed and will determine the impact on Demo-2 and the abortion test during flight," Sanders said.

While Demo-2 was formally scheduled for no earlier than July, the most likely flight would have occurred later in the year, even before the SuperDraco anomaly. Magnus noted that SpaceX had adopted a "spiral" approach to development, adding resources incrementally. That meant the company still had work to do, despite the success of the Demo-1 flight in March, before launching Demo-2 (see "The Beginning of the End of Commercial Crew Development", The Space Review, March 11 of 2019).

"Prior to the launch of Demo-1, because of this spiraling development approach undertaken by the company, NASA and SpaceX identified configuration changes and subsequent qualification work that would be needed before Demo-2 was possible," she said , echoing comments made by NASA officials at the time of the Demo-1 mission.

"Despite the recent incident, there is a lot of work to be completed between Demo-1 and a manned flight," she said, adding that it is too early to speculate how SuperDraco's anomaly would affect that.

SpaceX is not the only company experiencing problems with its cancellation system. Last summer, Boeing encountered a problem with the cancellation system of its CST-100 Starliner vehicle. Several engine values ​​did not close completely when commanded, the company said at the time.

This sounded like a relatively small problem – at least when compared to what SpaceX suffered – but still caused significant delays to the problem. In a statement released on April 3, NASA reported that the company was only preparing to restart the Hot Fire test drive of the Service Module at NASA's White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, now that the valve has been corrected. "The new hardware, including the launching abortion mechanism valves, has been redesigned and manufactured and is being installed in the test abortion engines," the agency said.

The statement came as NASA announced new dates for Boeing's two commercial flight test flights: an unmanned test now planned for launch in August, followed by a crew test not before November. Boeing craved the test from May to May, but said range problems – another Atlas 5, carrying a military communications satellite planned for late June – meant they had virtually no chance to launch in May before who turn the block for that June mission.

That shorter gap between the unmanned and manned test flights to Boeing – only three months – is feasible, Magnus suggested. "Boeing has taken a more traditional route, investing more effort before integrated testing to establish a more mature project from the start," she said, compared to SpaceX's spiraling approach. She added, however, that the company still faced "the submission and analysis of the data needed for the final certification and verification processes".

These combined events make it clear that it is highly unlikely that any of the companies will be certified to carry NASA astronauts by the end of this year. This had been a problem for NASA, as the agency's access to Soyuz seats was slated to end in early 2020.

However, NASA has taken several steps in recent months to address this potential loss of access. That included the announcement in February of its intention to buy two Roscosmos Soyuz seats that would guarantee access to the station by the fall of 2020.

Extending the stays of two ISS astronauts, according to NASA, "also allows NASA to devote more time to further research at the station, as US commercial crew launch providers prepare for ground and ground operations and space station USA ".

In addition, NASA announced on April 17 that two ISS astronauts would remain in the station longer than the crew's six-month standard rotation. Christina Koch, who arrived at the station in March, will now be in February next, a 328-day stay that will mark the record of a woman's longest space flight. Andrew Morgan, scheduled to launch the station in July, will remain at the station until next spring, a stay of 255 days,

NASA said extended stays would allow scientists to collect more data on the effects of long-term space flight, such as Scott Kelly's 340-day stay. But the agency added in the announcement that the extension "also allows NASA to devote more time to further research on board the station as US commercial flight crew providers prepare for operations to and from the ground and space station from the USA".

The third measure to maintain access involves exercising an option that was under study a year ago to turn Boeing's Starliner test flight into an extended stay at the station, something NASA announced in early April when it reported the new schedule of test flights. NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke, along with former astronaut and current Boeing employee Chris Ferguson, will spend potential months at the station under the new plan; NASA said the exact duration of this mission will be determined later.

ASAP praised NASA for these measures, which they argued would help ease scheduling pressure on commercial crew providers. "NASA has properly established a contingency plan to ensure continued access for US crew to the ISS by the end of 2020, providing a timeframe as they move toward manned flights," Magnus said.

So while the urgency of getting the commercial crew to fly has slowed, the urgency of finding out what happened to the Crew Dragon for more than a week persists. But just as the dark cloud of anomaly blew into the sea and dissipated, uncertainty should also cloud what happened that afternoon for the spacecraft and its implications for the general commercial crew program. Eventually

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