After almost two weeks of silence and speculation, SpaceX has confirmed that the Crew Dragon capsule that recently visited the International Space Station (ISS) was destroyed during a postflight ground test. In a statement to the press, SpaceX vice president of mission assurance, Hans Koenigsmann, said that the craft was unmanned and no one was injured when an "anomaly" destroyed it during tests of its Draco and SuperDraco engines at the Kennedy Space Center.
On April 20, 2019, a Crew Dragon was reported as destroyed during a static fire test that may have resulted in the release of toxic rocket propellant. The incident coincided with a plume of orange smoke seen by a Florida Today photographer and a video on the internet that was subsequently removed appeared to show the capsule exploding on the test pad.
After the incident, both SpaceX and NASA acknowledged that there had been what they continue to refer to as an anomaly, but said little more other than investigations were continuing.
In his statement, Koenigsmann said that the investigation is still in a very early stage, and because the accident occurred during a ground test, there is a large amount of data from sensors, telemetry, and high-speed imagery for study and analysis. He also said that recovered hardware would be studied, but did not say whether any had been recovered. The monomethylhydrazine fuel and dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer used to power the eight SuperDraco engines are highly volatile, hypergolic, and extremely toxic, so it is likely that approaches of the capsule debris is proceeding cautiously.
According to Koenigsmann, the accident occurred after a series of tests of the smaller Draco thrusters used for attitude control, which are the same as those installed in the unmanned Dragon cargo ship. These were fired in two sets for five seconds each. However, before the test team could fire the SuperDraco engines, the vehicle was destroyed.
He went on to say that it is too early to confirm the cause of the explosion, but he believes it is unlikely that the SuperDraco engines were involved, citing the 600 tests that the engines have undergone. In addition, there are not commonalities with the cargo Dragon that would require grounding it.
"Again, I'd like to reiterate the anomaly occurred during a test, not during a flight," said Koenigsmann. "That is why we test. If this has to happen, I'd rather it happens on the ground in the development program and I believe what we will learn from this test will make us basically a better company and Dragon 2 at the end a better vehicle, a safer vehicle. And so we will take the lessons learned from this and I'm convinced this will help us to ensure that Crew Dragon is one of the safest human spaceflight vehicles ever built."
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