Amidst all of the controversy and volatility involving Tesla this year, one of the silver linings for Elon Musk was his recent successful Falcon 9 crew launch , but it now looks as though that project may have literally “gone up in smoke.”
On Friday, a test version of the company’s Crew Dragon suffered what SpaceX is calling an “anomaly” at the company’s facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
BREAKING: #SpaceX Crew Dragon suffered an anomaly during test fire today, according to 45th Space Wing. Smoke could be seen on the beaches.
“On April 20, an anomaly occurred at Cape Canaveral AFS during Dragon 2 static test fire. Anomaly was contained and no injuries.” pic.twitter.com/If5rdeGRXO
— Emre Kelly (@EmreKelly) April 20, 2019
Large plumes of smoke were seen emanating from the area, according to Space.com. We can’t help but wonder what the fossil fuel burning equivalent would be for the amount of smoke that made its way into the atmosphere as a result, especially given the fact that Crew Dragon’s engines burn “fairly toxic compounds”, according to ARSTechnica, that include “hypergolic propellants—monomethylhydrazine” and “nitrogen tetroxide”.
SpaceX said of the issue: “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.”
This video, alleged, but not yet confirmed to be the “anomaly”, has been making its rounds on Twitter. If it is confirmed to be the Dragon 2, it is obvious that nothing about the initial tests could reasonably be referred to as “successful.”
Yep, this isn’t good… pic.twitter.com/4DwTTjw9MN
— Astronut099 (@Astronut099) April 21, 2019
Shown below, four pairs of SuperDraco engines power the Crew Dragon’s escape system. SpaceX has been developing SuperDraco thrusters for the better part of a decade to enable human flights on board Dragon, according to ARSTechnica. But this recent incident will have NASA scrutinizing these thrusters closely.
Similar escape system issues have precluded Boeing from rescheduling a test flight that occurred last summer:
Escape systems have previously caused problems as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which has provided funds to private companies for access to low Earth orbit. In June 2018, as Boeing prepared its Starliner spacecraft for a test of its emergency escape system, a propellant leak occurred near the end of an engine test firing and seriously damaged the service module. Boeing had intended to complete the test of its abort system last summer but has yet to reschedule the flight 10 months later, apparently due to complications from this accident.
Boeing is also in competition with SpaceX for NASA’s business. And that’s not the only “race” taking place, as SpaceX continues to try and tap new lines of investor cash it fund its operations. The goal of the Crew Dragon capsule is to eventually ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station – but the timeline on that goal may have just been pushed much further into the future as a NASA probe into the venture is all but assured.
We can’t help but think that this setback may have SpaceX investors re-thinking exactly how much money they want to dump into Musk’s science experiments without a return on invested capital.