By: Nick Gambino
On April 20th, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX was performing routine tests on one version of the Crew Dragon spacecraft that was readying itself to eventually transport a human crew. During one of these tests, the spacecraft exploded in the air unexpectantly.
The loss of Crew Dragon immediately sparked an investigation by SpaceX to figure out what caused the malfunction. It seems we now have the answer. They think the problem lay with the emergency abort system. As the name implies, the system should only be activated when there’s a failure upon launch.
The emergency abort system includes tiny thrusters that work to bring the crew safely back to the ground. It looks like a leaky valve allowed the propellant used for these tiny thrusters to end up in another high-pressure system. One thing led to another and kaboom.
“It’s something that the components should not have done,” Hans Koenigsman, a VP at SpaceX said at a press conference. “But at the same time, we learned a very valuable lesson on something going forward, one that makes the Crew Dragon a safer vehicle.”
Fortunately, there’s a silver lining in the explosion of the unmanned spacecraft. This mishap revealed an unexpected problem that is best handled by looking for better solutions. SpaceX plans to replace these valves with something more reliable known as a burst disk which “will mitigate the risk entirely.”
“We had the ability to find an issue with the hardware and be able to find the hardware and be able to assess the hardware,” Program Director for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Kathy Lueders, said at the same press conference. “So it was a huge gift for us.”
One ripple effect, though, is that Crew Dragon won’t be ready to transport astronauts by the end of the summer as originally intended. Instead, this might push back plans for SpaceX’s first manned aircraft to sometime in 2020.
“My emphasis is really on making sure this is safe,” Koenigsman explained. “So end of the year, I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s getting increasingly difficult.”
He also noted that the investigation is only 80% complete, so they’ll have to finish that up before they can reassess any realistic timeline going forward.