One of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon crew capsules suffered an “anomaly” on the launch pad at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station while testing its engines on Saturday, with Florida Today posting an image of “orange plumes” rising from the launchpad and noting “unconfirmed reports” that the capsule was destroyed.
According to Spaceflight Now, some nearby workers said they heard an explosion, though no injuries have been reported. In a statement to Florida Today, a company spokesperson dropped few details, instead focusing on how the incident happened in unmanned testing rather than in flight and/or with humans aboard:
“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,” SpaceX said in a statement. “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,” the company said.
That sentiment was echoed by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who released a statement on Twitter saying in part, “This is why we test.”
SpaceFlight Now wrote that the accident happened while SpaceX was running an “abort engine test.” The Crew Dragon has Draco thrusters for normal maneuvers, as well as eight larger SuperDraco thrusters that are used for aborts in the event of an emergency. According to the Los Angeles Times, SpaceX has confirmed the craft which suffered the anomaly was the one that automatically docked with the International Space Station earlier this year, which engineers planned to refurbushed. That capsule was reportedly due for an uncrewed in-flight abort test which would first require the kind of static fire test that went wrong on Saturday.
Business Insider posted a video of what a Twitter user claimed was the craft detonating, but it was low-resolution and could not be immediately verified. The site wrote that “When asked about the video, SpaceX simply pointed to the statement about Saturday’s test.”
It’s not clear whether the incident will affect the timeline for SpaceX to ready the craft, which is part of the Commercial Crew Program—a project to provide NASA with new vehicles to launch astronauts into space, and that is already running long behind schedule. (NASA lost this capability years ago with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, and has since relied on Russia’s Roscosmos to provide seats on Soyuz rockets to transfer astronauts to the International Space Station.)
According to Spaceflight Now, sources say the Crew Dragon’s first test with humans on board, currently scheduled for no earlier than July 25, was already “likely to be rescheduled for late September or early October” before whatever happened on Saturday. As the Times noted, SpaceX is building a different Crew Dragon capsule for that crewed test.
Boeing, which is also developing a craft called the CST-100 Starliner for the Commercial Crew Program, is not slated to begin uncrewed testing for months.