SpaceX suffers Crew Dragon engine test mishap

By William Harwood

/ CBS News

A SpaceX commercial crew capsule suffered a mishap of some sort during engine tests at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Saturday, sending billowing clouds of reddish smoke into sky. No injuries were reported.

In a brief two-paragraph statement, SpaceX said company engineers were carrying out a series of engine tests "on a Crew Dragon test vehicle" on a firing stand at Landing Zone 1 at the Air Force station."

"The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand," the company said. "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."

The statement did not specify whether the mishap involved a flight version of the Crew Dragon ferry ship or whether it might have been an engine test article of some sort. The Crew Dragon scheduled to carry the first astronauts into space this summer or fall is not yet believed to be in Florida.

But the "Demo 1" Crew Dragon capsule, launched March 2 on an unpiloted test flight, is at the Cape being prepared for an in-flight abort test early this summer, a critical milestone needed to clear the way for the first piloted launch, using a different capsule, in the late July timeframe.

In any case, the Florida Today newspaper tweeted a photo showing a billowing red cloud rising above the Air Force Station as beach goers looked on and later cited "unconfirmed reports" the capsule, whichever one it was, was "all but destroyed."

Couple of things on #SpaceX Crew Dragon:

– Unconfirmed reports: Capsule "all but destroyed"
– Here's a photo gallery: https://t.co/9IL7JsAV9r
– And the story: https://t.co/uWvpUkIO3T pic.twitter.com/5UJRk1tpdB

— Emre Kelly (@EmreKelly) April 20, 2019

Reddish smoke can indicate hypergolic propellants like those used by the Super Draco abort engines in the Crew Dragon spacecraft. But again, no details were immediately available.

SpaceX and Boeing are both building capsules to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station under commercial contracts with NASA that are aimed at ending the agency's sole reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry U.S. and partner astronauts to low-Earth orbit.

NASA has awarded Boeing multiple contracts totaling $4.82 billion to develop a commercial crew ship now known as the CST-100 Starliner, a capsule that will launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

SpaceX also won a series of contracts totaling some $3.1 billion to date to develop a piloted version of the company's Dragon cargo ship — the Crew Dragon — that will launch atop Falcon 9 rockets. The company holds a separate cargo contract valued at $3.04 billion for 20 space station resupply flights and another contract for an unspecified amount for at least six additional flights through 2024.

SpaceX successfully launched a Crew Dragon capsule on an unpiloted test flight March 2. That capsule was slated to be used for an upcoming in-flight abort test, the second of two intended to prove the spacecraft can escape from a malfunctioning booster, before a crew will be cleared for launch.

The first piloted flight, with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on board, is currently targeted for late July. But even before Saturday's anomaly, agency insiders were saying it likely was headed for the September-October timeframe. Again, what impact Saturday's mishap might have on those plans is not yet known.

Boeing's first unpiloted Starliner flight is tentatively planned for August with the first piloted flight expected late this year.

Once operational, the Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner both will carry supplies and four astronauts at a time to the space station and both will approach the lab from directly ahead or above, docking at recently modified ports at the front end of the complex. The Starliner will return to a touchdown in the western United States while the Crew Dragon splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean east of Cape Canaveral.

First published on April 20, 2019 / 7:49 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

William Harwood

Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."

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