Questions Galore After SpaceX Crew Dragon Explodes in Testing

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo test vehicle, previously flown on the Demo-1 mission, experienced an explosive anomaly during testing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 20, 2019. Photo Credit: @Astronut099 via Twitter

Yesterday, April 20, at 6:02pm local time, Florida Today published a breaking story by Emre Kelly, with photos by one of their photojournalists, Craig Bailey, of dark, acrid, orange smoke rising from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the first indication that there had been an accident there.

Bailey had been coincidentally covering another assignment, and not long after breaking the story with Kelly, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed via Twitter that there had in fact been an anomaly, and it was during a SpaceX static test fire of the Crew Dragon test article’s Super Draco abort engines at their Landing Zone-1.

The cause of the April 20 Crew Dragon anomaly is currently unacknowledged publicly yet by SpaceX or Elon Musk, who answers questions often but has thus far remained silent about the test.

SpaceX did, however, offer comments to Kelly following his inquiries, stating that they completed initial tests successfully, and that the anomaly occured during a final test:

In a short video released by Twitter user @Astronut099 following the explosion, it appeared pretty clear the vehicle was the Demo-1 article which recently flew a flawless un-crewed orbital flight test to and from the International Space Station for NASA (this was later confirmed by Kelly).

The video has since been removed, but began appearing on numerous YouTube channels shortly after (below).

Its next flight was to be on a critical in-flight Ascent Abort Test from Kennedy Space Center pad 39A this summer, launching atop a reused Falcon 9 rocket and proving it can safely abort a crew away from a failing rocket during the launch ascent, before NASA puts the first astronauts onboard on the Demo-2 mission.

And while it is easy to assume any of a thousand different possibilities about what happened, it’s currently unclear what exact testing SpaceX was doing when the failure occured. It’s possible, for example, based on the test video, that the Super Dracos may not have even fired yet before the explosion, hinting at a leak or rupture in a pressurized tank somewhere which could cause fuel to mix in an unintended way.

The engines use hypergolic fuels which ignite spontaneously when mixing, eliminating the need for an ignition source of any kind.

A SpaceX Crew Dragon test article launches on a Pad Abort Test from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photo Credit: John Studwell / AmericaSpace

Yesterday’s anomaly is obviously a major set-back for NASA’s Commercial Crew program to return human spaceflight to U.S. shores by the turn of the decade, launching astronauts to and from the International Space Station and eliminating America’s dependence on Russia, but just how big of a set-back is at this time unknown.

When an issue arose during a June 2018 hot-fire test of Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule abort system during engine shut-down, the resulting delay significantly delayed the first planned launch of the Starliner atop a ULA Atlas-V rocket to late 2019 or early 2020.

The April 20 explosion was not the first time that the Super Draco engines have experienced an anomaly either, but they have been tested hundreds, if not thousands of time already.

During the May 6, 2015 pad abort test, one of the four Super Draco clusters on the Dragon 2 had sub-par performance, causing the craft’s guidance and control to throttle-down the opposite cluster to avoid asymmetrical thrust. The resulting loss of thrust meant that there was barely sufficient enough energy to prevent the test article from an undesired landing upon Cape Canaveral beach.

Video Credit: SpaceX via YouTube

However, such failures in testing come with the territory, when such complex systems are intentionally stressed to and in excess of their limits in countless failure scenarios, to understand where the limits are and establish safety margins accordingly, before putting crews onboard

We will update as information becomes available.

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21 comments to Questions Galore After SpaceX Crew Dragon Explodes in Testing

  • Hari

    I forsee a minimum one year delay for Demo-2. Starliner’s crew flight test also uncertain, but I feel Boeing is more unreliable than SpaceX. The real tragedy is that American astronauts will still be reliant upon Soyuz as their main transportation system to and from ISS.

  • Jim Hillhouse

    Time will tell what the impact of this anomaly will be to SpaceX’s Dragon 2 schedule.

    SpaceX now has to figure out what happened, fix the cause, and retest. This is the third time a SpaceX system has gone catastrophic, so I guess the good news is that the company is well versed in forensics.

    In its defense, Boeing caught its hyperbolic abort system issues nearly a year ago during a test-stand test in White Sands and is hopefully well along with getting Aerojet-Rocketdyne to fix the valve issue that was the cause.

    Not meaning to pour salt on a wound, but it does bear mentioning that the slow, plodding (gradatim ferociter?) Orion and SLS programs have experienced zero ‘anomalies’ or explosions.

    • Jeff Wright

      That is a very good point.

      Orion uses tried and true abort systems. Its smaller, sphere-like hypergolic tanks are like the improperly named “fuel cells” demolition derby cars use in lieu of larger, more limber gas tanks.

      I wonder if the wide exhaust slits let ram-pressure over-fill the tanks in some wise. The Apollo LEM and Service modules never “felt” re-entry or sea water.

      Cargo Dragon with a simple abort tower might fix things.

      Like you, I want Old Space and New Space to “praise the hell out of each other”–as you put it.

      But newspacers love to put MAF/MSFC down every chance they got–while I at least have cheered for SpaceX.

      –publiusr

    • Chris

      I love how the program well over budget and behind schedule is doing great because it isn’t doing anything in flight (other than a half boilerplate on another launcher). Although I think installing the tank welding jig crooked and dropping a LOX dome are anomalies of manufacturing. F9 has flown 69 missions with 690+ Merlin full-duration mission firings. Let me know when SLS gets there. Dragon 1 is on mission 17, let me know when Orion gets there. I’ll be waiting awhile, actually forever.

      • Adjure

        When the SLS flies they entire world will give the U.S. a standing ovation.
        The spacex fans have done nothing but work against our Super Heavy Lift Vehicle and I have zero respect for any of them. They have posted literally libraries of death to SLS comments over the years. Traitors and trolls.

        • Leonidas Papadopoulos

          I’m really glad to see that I’m not the only SLS supporter in the world! You are so right and I can’t wait for the SLS to fly.

          Thank you for your comment. All my best!

          Leonidas

      • Adjure

        I love how spacex fans always demonize the SLS as the only real problem.

  • Tony podraza

    Go back to the 50s and 60s…..plenty of oopses.
    For the youth of SpaceX, they have a pretty good record.

    • Jim Hillhouse

      Aerospace companies learned from those events that occurred over 50 years ago. Did those lessons not make it to “…the youth of SpaceX”?

      • Tom D Perkins

        Please demonstrate anything done then is applicable to now.

        • Adjure

          50 years of aerospace technological advances in computer modeling, materials, and many other disciplines that have made events like this only attributable to….
          a billionaire hobbyist with too much influence on design.

      • Chris

        Begs the question did those lessons make it to the same companies when they were blowing stuff up left and right in the late 90s?

        • Adjure

          Actually, it does not beg any question. ULA has not blown up. Rockets do not blow up anymore except when people or companies try and cut corners and go cheap. The shuttle was really a case of trying to go cheap. And now SpaceX is paying for their lack of quality and poor design. Your ploy is transparent.

  • Art

    You noted, ” it’s currently unclear what exact testing SpaceX was doing when the failure occurred.”. No, it’s not, SpaceX knows exactly what testing was happening and exactly the sequence in the test down to the millisecond. They just don’t want to share.

  • Virgin Mary

    I Am So Sorry If I Scared The Dragon. I Meant To Say ” Launch Site,”. Not ” Blow Up ” Site !!!

  • Ken

    my concern is that SpaceX seems to test through use. Obviously much quicker and cheaper than what NASA is doing, but once you have people on board the risk is too high. A number of times they have come out with lines like ‘we know what went wrong and it’s a simple fix’ – a rigorous testing process would have identified the problem before the failure.

  • Dispassionate Reason

    I wonder if it was some dumb human error as was apparently the case with the lunar probe that crashed recently?

  • […] Additionally, landing plans for the booster’s first stage was shifted from a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) on Landing Zone (LZ)-1 at the Cape to the offshore Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”, following last weekend’s Crew Dragon anomaly. […]

  • […] the Crew Dragon undertook a successful unpiloted test flight to the ISS in early March—before later succumbing to an explosive failure during a ground run of its SuperDraco thrusters on 20 April—and the Falcon Heavy saw its first operational launch, just last […]

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