SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft suffers an anomaly during static fire testing at Cape Canaveral

Just six weeks after splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean following a successful Demo-1 test flight, the same SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft was set to perform multiple static fire tests on Saturday to verify that the capsule’s propulsion systems were functioning properly ahead of an inflight abort test planned for the summer. However, during the testing, the spacecraft suffered a significant anomaly. The incident will likely lead to further delays with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

On March 8th – after a four day stay at the International Space Station – Crew Dragon returned to Earth with a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. The mission was an uncrewed demonstration flight – called Demo-1 – meant to certify Crew Dragon for human spaceflight.

Immediately after returning to port, SpaceX technicians began preparing the capsule for the inflight abort test. The test will see Crew Dragon fire its SuperDraco thrusters to pull itself away from a Falcon 9 rocket – demonstrating the spacecraft’s abort capability in the event of an anomaly with the launch vehicle.

Map of SpaceX’s proposed Dragon processing facility near Landing Zone-1

To prepare for the abort test, it is now understood that previously undisclosed static fires of the Crew Dragon’s thrusters were set to occur Saturday morning at Cape Canaveral. In terms of the location of the testing, SpaceX originally planned to build a test stand for Crew Dragon near Landing Zone 1.

It is not immediately clear if this proposed test stand was to be used during Saturday’s planned static fires, although the testing occurred in the vicinity of SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1.

According to sources, Saturday’s testing was to have multiple events. First, the vehicle’s Draco thrusters – used primarily for station keeping on orbit – were to be fired up on the test stand on two separate occasions. This would then be followed by a firing of the SuperDraco thrusters just an hour or two later. The SuperDraco thrusters are used to perform inflight aborts.

At some point during Saturday’s testing, a major anomaly occurred on the test stand. In a statement to NASASpaceflight.com, SpaceX provided the following information, “Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand.

“Ensuring that our systems meet rigorous safety standards and detecting anomalies like this prior to flight are the main reasons why we test. Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners.”

Based on the sourced info, the fact that the anomaly happened during the final test suggests that the anomaly likely had to do with the firing of the SuperDraco engines.

While the specifics behind the anomaly have not yet been confirmed, the rumored severity will likely lead to delays with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). Under CCP, Boeing and SpaceX have been tasked with returning America’s crewed spaceflight capability by providing crew rotation flights to and from the International Space Station.

Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecrafts will be used for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program – render via Nathan Koga for NSF/L2

Prior to today’s anomaly, SpaceX was considered by many to be ahead of Boeing in the program with a higher chance of flying crew by the end of the year. Boeing is currently working a few setbacks of its own. Now, with today’s incident, the entire Commercial Crew schedule has been thrown into doubt.

This is concerning, as the United States has purchased seats on the Russian Soyuz rocket to fill the gap between the ending of the Space Shuttle and Commercial Crew coming online. Unfortunately, NASA will soon run out of seats, potentially creating problems for NASA if Commercial Crew does not come online within the next year.

Most likely, it will take several weeks for the full impact of the anomaly to be understood, as teams will have to spend time reviewing the data and determining the path forward.

Before this weekends incident, SpaceX’s progress on the Crew Dragon spacecraft has been flying along. The company completed a successful uncrewed test flight into orbit – called the Demo-1 mission – in March of this year. The test was nearly flawless, with no major incidents reported.

Then, the company was able to prepare the capsule for this weekends testing just six weeks after the same Crew Dragon spent around an hour in the corrosive saltwater environment following splashdown from the Demo-1 mission.

Had Saturday’s static fires gone to plan, SpaceX would have been on target to conduct the inflight abort test by mid-July.

The abort test will see a Falcon 9 rocket with a standard first stage and nearly standard second stage – a dummy MVac engine being the notable difference – launch from Kennedy Space Center with the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Then, during the period of maximum aerodynamic pressure, Crew Dragon will execute an abort.

The abort sequence will see a firing of the SuperDraco engines followed by the jettison of the vehicle’s trunk. Then, the parachute deployment sequence will begin to prepare the spacecraft for splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.

According to the Environmental Assessment for the test, the launch vehicle will be destroyed after Crew Dragon performs its abort.

While Musk previously stated that the test would be the fourth flight of the first stage booster B1048, it is now understood that plans have changed and the launch will instead feature the fourth flight of B1046 – the first ever Block 5 booster.

It is believed that B1048 has instead been manifested for the first dedicated mission of SpaceX’s Starlink internet constellation scheduled for no earlier than May.

Once SpaceX teams have solved the problem from this weekends anomaly with Crew Dragon and regained hardware readiness for the inflight abort test, the next objective will be the all important Demo-2 mission.

The crew of SpaceX DM-2, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. (Credit: NASA)

Demo-2 will see NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launch to the International Space Station on a brand new Crew Dragon to certify SpaceX for operational crew rotation missions to the Station.

The exact timeframe for the Demo-2 mission is currently under evaluation from the NASA and SpaceX teams. However, before today’s anomaly, it was understood that very late summer or early fall was the earliest possible timeframe that the launch could occur under.

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