Wednesday May 22, 2019
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SpaceX Suffers Serious Setback During Crew Capsule Testing

This capsule flew to the International Space Station last month on a crewless trial run, and it was supposed to be reused in a launch abort test in June

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FILE - The Dragon spacecraft is seen in this photo provided by SpaceX. VOA

SpaceX has suffered a serious setback in its effort to launch NASA astronauts into orbit this year, with the fiery loss of its first crew capsule during testing.

Over the weekend, the company’s recently flown Dragon crew capsule was engulfed in smoke and flames on an engine test stand at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX was testing the Dragon’s abort thrusters when Saturday’s accident occurred.

The company said the test area was clear and no one was injured.

This capsule flew to the International Space Station last month on a crewless trial run, and it was supposed to be reused in a launch abort test in June. Another capsule was supposed to follow with two astronauts as early as July. Astronauts haven’t launched from Florida since 2011.

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FILE – The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station, March 3, 2019. VOA

NASA said Monday it’s too early to revise the target launch dates, given that the accident is still so fresh. “This is why we test,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement over the weekend. “We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our commercial crew program.”

Until Saturday, SpaceX was on a roll to resume crew launches from Florida. The March test flight, to the space station and back, went smoothly. The SuperDraco thrusters embedded in the sides of the capsule were not used during the demo.

The thrusters are crucial to protect astronauts in flight; they’re designed to fire in an emergency and pull the capsule safely away from the rocket.

The University of Southern California’s Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who directed space operations for SpaceX until last year, said it was a “tough day … not good” for the company. “But thankfully no one got hurt and with everything we learn from this anomaly Crew Dragon will be a safer vehicle for all her future crews,” he tweeted.

SpaceX said it will make sure, through the accident investigation, that the Dragon is one of the safest spacecraft ever built for astronauts. The California-based company released few details, though, on the accident itself and how it might impact future flights.

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Federal oversight authorities warned NASA last year that more delays could leave US astronauts stranded if the new capsules were not ready to fly in 2019. Pixabay

Former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, now with Syracuse University, said via email Monday that it’s “too early to tell what the implications may be.”

SpaceX and Boeing

NASA has not launched astronauts from Cape Canaveral since the last shuttle flight in 2011, instead paying for rides on Russian rockets. The space agency turned the job over to two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — to build new capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the space station.

ALSO READ: Spacecraft Test Runs into Serious Problems, Smoke All Over SpaceX in Florida

Earlier this month, NASA announced major delays for test flights of Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule. The initial trip to the space station, without astronauts, is targeted for August, with the first Starliner crew potentially flying by year’s end.

NASA stressed that next week’s launch of a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule remains on track. The supply ship is set to blast off from Cape Canaveral on April 30. SpaceX has been making deliveries to the space station since 2012. The crew Dragon is a much-enhanced version of the cargo version. (VOA)

Next Story

Japan to Provide Low-Cost Rocket Services to Compete with US Rivals

Development of a low-cost commercial rocket is part of a growing international trend in the space business led by the U.S. and aggressively followed by China and others

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Japanese entrepreneur and Founder of Interstellar Technologies Inc. Takafumi Horie speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, May 15, 2019. VOA

A Japanese startup that launched a rocket into space earlier this month plans to provide low-cost rocket services and compete with American rivals such as SpaceX, its founder said Wednesday.

Interstellar Technology Inc. founder Takafumi Horie said a low-cost rocket business in Japan is well-positioned to accommodate scientific and commercial needs in Asia. While Japan’s government-led space programs have demonstrated top-level technology, he said the country has fallen behind commercially due to high costs.

“In Japan, space programs have been largely government-funded and they solely focused on developing rockets using the best and newest technologies, which means they are expensive,” Horie told reporters in Tokyo. “As a private company, we can focus on the minimum level of technology needed to go to space, which is our advantage. We can transport more goods and people to space by slashing costs.”

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Horie said his company’s low-cost MOMO-3 rocket is the way to create a competitive space business in Japan. VOA

Horie said his company’s low-cost MOMO-3 rocket is the way to create a competitive space business in Japan.

During its May 4 flight, the unmanned MOMO-3 rocket reached 113.4 kilometers (70 miles) in altitude before falling into the Pacific Ocean. The cost to launch the MOMO-3 was about one-tenth of the launch cost of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the country’s space agency, according to Interstellar CEO Takahiro Inagawa.

Horie said his company plans to launch its first orbital rocket — the ZERO — within the next few years and then it would technologically be on par with competitors such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and New Zealand engineer Peter Beck’s Rocket Lab.

spaceX, zero, momo-3 rocket
Horie said his company plans to launch its first orbital rocket — the ZERO — within the next few years and then it would technologically be on par with competitors such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. VOA

The two-stage ZERO would be twice as long and much heavier than the compact MOMO-3, which is about 10 meters (32 feet) long and 50 centimeters (1.5 feet) in diameter and weighs about 1 ton. It would be able to send satellites into orbit or carry payloads for scientific purposes.

ALSO READ: Taiwan’s Parliament Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage, Mass Weddings Planned

Development of a low-cost commercial rocket is part of a growing international trend in the space business led by the U.S. and aggressively followed by China and others.

At home, Horie could face competition from space subsidiaries of major companies such as Canon and IHI, which have expertise from working with the government’s space agency. (VOA)