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SpaceX Crew Capsule Destroyed in Fiery Explosion During Ground Test

NASA has been awarded $6.8 billion to SpaceX and rival Boeing Co to develop separate capsule systems to fly astronauts to space, but both companies have faced technical challenges and delays

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FILE - Photographer Thom Baur installs remote cameras around the Crew Drago spacecraft as it sits on launch pad 39A before the uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., March 1, 2019. VOA

Nearly two weeks after a fiery explosion during a ground test of its new crew capsule, SpaceX confirmed Thursday that the vehicle was destroyed, but neither the company nor NASA, its primary customer, have publicly acknowledged the nature of the mishap.

Instead, Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability for California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, continued to refer to the accident simply as an “anomaly,” jargon for when something goes wrong.

The April 20 accident occurred at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as SpaceX was about to test eight emergency thrusters designed to propel the capsule, dubbed Crew Dragon, to safety from atop the rocket in the event of a launch failure.

“Just prior, before we wanted to fire the (thrusters), there was an anomaly and the vehicle was destroyed,” Koenigsmann told reporters Thursday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “There were no injuries. SpaceX had taken all safety measures prior to this test, as we always do.”

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FILE – The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule is pictured, March 3, 2019, about 20 meters (66 feet) from the International Space Station’s Harmony module. SpaceX said May 2, 2019, that their Dragon capsule for astronauts was destroyed during a ground test, April 20, 2019. VOA

The news conference was called ahead of Friday’s scheduled launch of an unmanned resupply mission to the International Space Station using a cargo-only capsule built by SpaceX, the private rocket venture of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

When pressed about the accident, Koenigsmann declined to say whether an explosion or fire was involved. NASA has likewise declined to describe the mishap.

A leaked video of the accident, which a NASA contractor has acknowledged as authentic in an internal memo obtained by the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, showed the capsule blasting to smithereens. A pall of smoke was also widely observed from a distance at the time of the ill-fated test.

SpaceX’s reluctance to describe in plain terms what happened to the capsule was at odds with NASA’s long history of transparency surrounding accidents involving its human spaceflight program.

The Crew Dragon had been scheduled to carry U.S. astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the space station in a test mission in July, although April’s accident, as well as some vehicle design hitches, are likely to push that launch to later in the year or into 2020. “It’s certainly not great news for the schedule overall, but I hope we can recover,” Koenigsmann said.

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NASA has been awarded $6.8 billion to SpaceX and rival Boeing Co to develop separate capsule systems to fly astronauts to space. Pixabay

The destroyed vehicle was one of six such capsules built or in late production by SpaceX, and the first flown into space. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched it without crew to the space station in March for a six-day visit before returning to Earth, splashing down safely in the Atlantic for retrieval.

Koenigsmann said initial data from the accident showed the mishap occurred during activation of the emergency thrusters, which SpaceX calls the SuperDraco system.

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“We have no reason to believe there is an issue with the SuperDracos themselves,” Koenigsmann said, adding that the engines have been tested nearly 600 times in the past.

NASA has been awarded $6.8 billion to SpaceX and rival Boeing Co to develop separate capsule systems to fly astronauts to space, but both companies have faced technical challenges and delays. (VOA)

Next Story

SpaceX Launches 60 Mini Satellites for Cheaper Global Internet

The Falcon rocket blasted into the morning sky, marking the unprecedented fourth flight of a booster for SpaceX

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FILE - A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket, with a payload of 60 satellites for SpaceX's Starlink broadband network, lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, May 23, 2019. VOA

SpaceX launched 60 mini satellites Monday, the second batch of an orbiting network meant to provide global internet coverage.

The Falcon rocket blasted into the morning sky, marking the unprecedented fourth flight of a booster for SpaceX. The compact flat-panel satellites – just 575 pounds (260 kilograms) each – will join 60 launched in May.

SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk wants to put thousands of these Starlink satellites in orbit, to offer high-speed internet service everywhere. He plans to start service next year in the northern U.S. and Canada, with global coverage for populated areas after 24 launches.

Last month, Musk used an orbiting Starlink satellite to send a tweet: “Whoa, it worked!!”

SpaceX, Satellites, Global
SpaceX employees work on the Crew Dragon spacecraft that will astronauts to and from the International Space Station, from American soil, as part of the agency’s commercial crew Program, in Hawthorne, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. VOA

Employees gathered at company bases on both coasts cheered when the first-stage booster landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic.

“These boosters are designed to be used 10 times. Let’s turn it around for a fifth, guys,” company’s launch commentator said.

This also marked the first time SpaceX used a previously flown nose cone. The California-based company reuses rocket parts to cut costs.

Stacked flat inside the top of the rocket, the newest satellites were going to maneuver even higher following liftoff, using krypton-powered thrusters. SpaceX said there was a potential problem with one of the 60 that could prevent it from moving beyond its initial 174 mile-high (280 kilometer-high) orbit. In that case, the faulty satellite will be commanded to re-enter and burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere.

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Each satellite has an autonomous system for dodging space junk. In September, however, the European Space Agency had to move one of its satellites out of the way of a Starlink satellite. SpaceX later said it corrected the problem.

SpaceX is among several companies interested in providing broadband internet coverage worldwide, especially in areas where it costs too much or is unreliable. Others include OneWeb and Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.

According to Musk, Starlink revenue can help SpaceX develop rockets and spacecraft for traveling to Mars, his overriding ambition. (VOA)