SpaceX Crew Dragon destroyed during a recent test fire

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SpaceX Crew Dragon destroyed during a recent test fire.

A senior SpaceX official confirmed Thursday that an “anomaly” during an April 20 ground test destroyed a Crew Dragon spacecraft meant to clear the way for the launch of two astronauts this summer. SpaceX Vice President Hans Koenigsmann added it’s not yet clear how long the program will be delayed or even if a piloted mission might get off the ground before the end of the year.

“We’re going to learn a lot, and I think this will make the program actually safer at the end of the day,” Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and reliability, told reporters. “In terms of schedule, finishing the investigation and resolving this anomaly is our prime focus right now. We will see what comes out of it.”

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While he declined to speculate how long the failure probe might take, he said, “I hope this is a relatively swift investigation. I don’t want to completely preclude the current schedule, (but) certainly not great news for the schedule overall.”

The Crew Dragon spacecraft was launched on a successful unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station in March and was being prepared for an in-flight test of its emergency abort system, designed to quickly fire and propel the craft away from a malfunctioning booster, when something went terribly wrong.

In the company’s first detailed update, Koenigsmann said the mishap occurred about a half-second before the Crew Dragon’s eight Super Draco abort engines were to be fired on a test stand at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

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“At the test stand, we powered up Dragon, it powered up as expected, we completed tests with the Draco (maneuvering) thrusters, the smaller thrusters that are also on the cargo Dragon,” Koenigsmann said. “And then just before we wanted to fire the Super Dracos there was an anomaly and the vehicle was destroyed.”

Spectators along area beaches saw billowing clouds of reddish-orange smoke rising above the Air Force station in the aftermath of the incident, an indication to veteran launch observers that toxic hypergolic propellants, like those powering the Crew Dragon’s thrusters, had been released.

As is standard procedure for such tests, the area was evacuated well ahead of time and winds were blowing out to sea. There were no injuries.

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“Because this (was a) ground test, we have a high amount of data, a huge amount of data from the vehicle and the ground sensors,” Koenigsmann said. “It is too early to confirm any cause, whether probable or root, but the initial data indicates the anomaly occurred during the activation of the Super Draco system. That said, we’re looking at all possible issues and the investigation is ongoing.”

He said the abort engines have been fired hundreds of times in other tests and that “we have no reason to believe there’s an issue with the Super Dracos themselves.”

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