Crewed Spaceflight Suffers Another Setback with Crew Dragon Anomaly

Updated: Apr 25, 2019

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule seen in processing. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Easter weekend brought about new challenges for the private launch company, SpaceX. As expected, the recently returned Crew Dragon capsule used for the company’s first demonstration flight (DM-1) to the International Space Station (ISS) last month, was undergoing continued review and testing at Landing Zone 1 located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Review and testing was being conducted to prepare the capsule to be used for an upcoming in-flight abort test. Unexpectedly, the capsule responded poorly to the final test of the day and reportedly suffered a significant anomaly that resulted in a complete loss of the capsule.

This mishap comes on the heels of a decimated Falcon Heavy center core booster returning to Port Canaveral after it initially landed successfully on the autonomous spaceport drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, but ultimately tipped over and was significantly damaged due to rough seas.

After experiencing a week of successes with the first fully operational launch of the Falcon Heavy and a newly awarded contract to support NASA’s upcoming Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, the company has been brought back down to Earth with this anomaly. A damaged core booster is something that the company was not expecting, but was certainly prepared to deal with. Experiencing an anomaly with a returned test capsule meant to support human spaceflight, however, is something that no company can really expect to plan for.

The capsules and expected crew members of NASA's Commercial Crew Program Photo Credit: NASA

SpaceX had been thought of as the front runner of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to once again support human spaceflight from the United States. They have been able to maintain a consistent timeline of progress unlike their competitor, Boeing which has announced multiple delays with their own human rated capsule, Starliner. That is, until now. With the first ever human rated capsule designed to be reused for cargo missions to the ISS experiencing an anomaly, the comapny is now facing setbacks. More than likely the SpaceX, along with input from NASA, will reevaluate not only capsule design, but most likely every procedure involved with launch, recovery, and reuse. It is likely that the investigation into what caused the anomaly will take weeks, at best.

Although conservative, SpaceX has addressed the incident issuing a brief statement that an anomaly occurred at the test site and an investigation into what happened is ongoing. NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine also issued the brief statement ensuring that although adjustments will need to be made, progress will continue, seen below:

We have still yet to see what kind of impact this will have on the Crew Dragon and Commercial Crew Programs and how current timelines of progress will be impacted. However, it can certainly be theorized that the upcoming scheduled in-flight abort test and expected late summer launch of the Demonstration 2 Mission, meant to carry astronauts to the ISS, will be delayed if not entirely off the table for 2019.

Astronauts expected to fly in the Crew Dragon capsule. Photo Credit: NASA

Although certainly a setback for commercial crew flights, the company is still expected to fulfill a busy launch manifest. Within the coming week, SpaceX is expected to send another resupply mission (CRS-17) to the ISS. It is also expected to launch an internal mission for their proposed “Starlink” satellite internet constellation no earlier than (NET) May, as well as, send the AMOS-17 satellite to orbit with a NET flight date of June. At time of publication there has been no confirmation given as to whether or not the Crew Dragon anomaly will impact the company's overall second quarter launch schedule.