Barely two months ago, a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule made history after docking to the International Space Station (ISS) as it orbited Earth. No astronauts had launched from American soil since 2011, and this successful test had raised hopes of ending NASA’s reliance on Russian rockets. However the plumes of smoke rising from Cape Canaveral on April 30 suggest something went catastrophically wrong with the latest Crew Dragon test.
Elon Musk’s company has described the Crew Dragon tests resulted in an “anomaly” on the test stand.
However grainy footage later published online purport to show the SpaceX capsule explode.
The video shows the spacecraft engulfed in flames while people are heard gasping off-camera.
In a statement SpaceX said: “The initial tests completed successfully, but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand.”
SpaceX has refused to verify the authenticity of the video, while an internal NASA email warns employees can be fired if they share the video.
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What is the SpaceX Crew Dragon?
The Crew Dragon is a free-flying spacecraft designed to deliver both cargo and people to orbiting destinations.
Crew Dragon is currently the only spacecraft capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth.
The SpaceX spacecraft successfully docked with the space station on March 3 this year, becoming the first American spacecraft in history to autonomously dock with the ISS.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft is capable of carrying up to 7 passengers to and from Earth orbit, and beyond.
At the capsule’s base and in the nose cone are Draco thrusters, which allow for orbital manoeuvring.
The Crew Dragon features an advanced emergency escape system to swiftly carry astronauts to safety if something were to go wrong.
The SpaceX capsule also has an Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), providing a comfortable and safe environment for crew members.
Crew Dragon’s displays will provide real-time information on the state of the spacecraft’s capabilities, showing everything from Dragon’s position in space, to possible destinations, to the environment on board.
Those CRS-2 Dragon missions will use “propulsive” landings, where the capsule lands on a landing pad using its SuperDraco thrusters rather than splashing down in the ocean.
This will allow NASA faster access to the cargo returned by those spacecraft, and also build up experience for propulsive landings of crewed Dragon spacecraft.
What was SpaceX testing?
SpaceX was attempting a static-fire test of the Crew Dragon’s abort system when it suffered an undisclosed anomaly.
The company said the Cape Canaveral test area was clear and no one was injured.
This Dragon was supposed to be reused in a launch abort test in June, with another capsule making the first flight with a crew of two as early as July.
The SuperDraco abort thrusters are crucial to protect astronauts in flight; they are designed to fire in an emergency, pushing the capsule safely away from the rocket.
NASA has said it is too early to revise the target launch dates, as the accident is still so fresh.