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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon appears to have self-destructed during engine testing

Published Apr 22nd, 2019 12:30PM EDT
crew dragon anomaly
Image: NASA

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SpaceX has had a really fantastic 2019 thus far, with its crowning achievement being the successful launch, docking, and reentry of its Crew Dragon capsule that is expected to be delivered to NASA for crewed missions sooner rather than later. Everything — well, almost everything — appeared to be going SpaceX’s way this year… until Saturday, that is.

According to NASA and multiple eyewitness reports something went very, very wrong with the Crew Dragon vehicle during an abort engine test at Cape Canaveral over the weekend. The engines, which are designed to push the crew capsule out and away from the rest of the launch vehicle if something goes wrong, suffered an “anomaly,” according to NASA. Images snapped by people close to the facility suggest the vehicle may have been destroyed in the process.

Multiple photos from sightseers nearby the launch facility appear to show a massive cloud of reddish-orange smoke billowing out from the vehicle’s location.

A statement by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirms the anomaly while noting that the agency and SpaceX are working together to figure out exactly what went wrong.

Additionally, a video that began making the rounds on Twitter shortly after the first reports of a problem appears to show a Crew dragon capsule essentially exploding on the launch pad. It’s important to note that this video has not been independently verified by any other eyewitnesses who would have been close enough to see it, much less by SpaceX or NASA. Take it with a grain of salt.

The video is incredibly low resolution and grainy, but what we can see would seem to match the arrangement of a static fire test, with the vehicle secured to a scaffold of sorts and, presumably, ready to test fire its engines.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the vehicle in question was indeed the same one that docked with the International Space Station just a number of weeks ago. That doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about why the vehicle’s engine(s) failed in this test, but it’s an interesting note.

As NASA’s Bridenstine says in his statement, this is why tests are vitally important to the safety of crewed spaceflight, but it’s still an unfortunate setback for SpaceX, which appeared to be poised to handily beat competitor Boeing to the punch in delivering a crew-capable spacecraft to NASA.