Apr 23, 2019 - Science

SpaceX's Crew Dragon setback

The Crew Dragon vehicle ahead of its first uncrewed launch to the ISS. Photo: SpaceX

The Crew Dragon vehicle ahead of its first uncrewed launch to the ISS. Photo: SpaceX

One of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsules — the company's vehicle designed to fly NASA astronauts into space — experienced a malfunction during ground testing in Florida on Saturday.

Why it matters: The anomaly could push back SpaceX's plans to launch humans from U.S. soil this summer.

  • According to an unconfirmed video reportedly showing the incident, the Crew Dragon capsule appeared to be engulfed in flames during the failure. No one was hurt as a result of the incident, according to SpaceX.
  • The capsule was the same Crew Dragon that successfully flew to and docked with the space station in March.
  • "Ensuring that our systems meet rigorous safety standards and detecting anomalies like this prior to flight are the main reasons why we test," a SpaceX spokesperson said in a statement. "Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners."

Driving the news: Details about exactly what happened are scant, but it comes in the context of repeated delays to NASA's Commercial Crew program.

  • NASA has been working toward launching people from U.S. soil again since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.
  • SpaceX and Boeing are in the final stages of development for their respective spacecraft, but it's not a sure thing that either company will launch humans to orbit before the end of the year.
  • Boeing has already delayed the first uncrewed flight of its Starliner capsule to the station, moving it from this spring to August at the earliest.
  • SpaceX was originally targeting July for its first crewed flight, but there were rumors of a delay even before this mishap.

What they're saying:

  • "Tough day for our @SpaceX team not good - but thankfully no one got hurt and with everything we learn from this anomaly Crew Dragon will be a safer vehicle for all her future crews," former NASA astronaut and SpaceX director of space operations Garrett Reisman said on Twitter.
  • "We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our Commercial Crew Program," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

Be smart: Because the root cause of the failure hasn't been released, it's difficult to know exactly how much of a delay this might cause for SpaceX. If the problem is traced back to an issue with the test stand, for example, that won't be as serious as a design flaw with the capsule itself.

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