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NASA safety panel urges patience with SpaceX mishap probe

SpaceX capsule suffers test failure

SpaceX is still in the process of collecting and analyzing recorded data, high-speed imagery and recovered hardware in the wake of a catastrophic abort system test failure last weekend that seriously damaged or destroyed a Crew Dragon spacecraft, officials said Thursday.

The spacecraft in question, known as the Demo 1 vehicle, carried out a successful unpiloted maiden flight to the International Space Station last month. It was being readied for a critical in-flight abort test to help pave the way for the first crewed mission using a different Crew Dragon, a mission known as Demo 2, this summer.

But those plans are now on hold in the wake of a mishap last Saturday during a static firing of the Demo 1 capsule's abort engines on a test stand at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

SpaceX has provided few details beyond the identity of the vehicle, the type of tests being carried out and confirmation no one was injured. It has not revealed the condition of the spacecraft or even confirmed whether an explosion took place, as widely assumed, referring to the event only as an "anomaly."

Despite that absence of public detail, a NASA spokesman said in an email statement that the agency "has full insight into the results of the mishap investigation, which is reviewing all of the data collected during the test, including high speed imagery and detailed spacecraft telemetry data and will include analysis of the recovered hardware from the test."

"We have full confidence in the SpaceX and NASA team working the investigation to determine the cause of the mishap and design updates should they be required," he said. "We don't yet know what impact this will have (on) our target schedules."

The mishap was discussed briefly Thursday during a meeting of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, which echoed the failure investigation will take time.

"Early efforts are focused on site safing, data collection and reduction and development of the anomaly timeline," said Patricia Sanders, the ASAP chair. "The investigation will take time before the root cause analysis is completed and will determine the impact to the Demo 2 and the in-flight abort test."

On Saturday, the Demo 1 spacecraft was mounted atop a test stand at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for a series of tests in which its small Draco maneuvering thrusters were fired. Those tests were to be followed by ignition of the capsule's eight more-powerful Super Draco engines.

SpaceX does not announce such tests in advance and the first indications of anything amiss were thick clouds of reddish smoke, visible for miles around along area beaches and highways, billowing into the sky above the Air Force station.

Hours later, SpaceX confirmed only that an "anomaly" involving a "Crew Dragon test vehicle" had occurred. A second short update the next day confirmed the Crew Dragon in question was the Demo 1 capsule, that the test involved a static firing of the Super Draco motors and that no one was injured.

It's not yet clear whether the Super Dracos actually fired, or were attempting to fire, when the incident took place or whether some other system could have been involved. No photos or video have been released and the company has not said whether the vehicle was destroyed, as is widely assumed.

While definitive answers are not expected in the early stages of a failure investigation, the lack of basic details prompted an editorial in the Orlando Sentinel earlier this week criticizing a perceived lack of transparency.

"'Anomaly' is a vague industry buzzword that tells the public zilch about what happened to a program that the federal government is spending billions on to get astronauts back into space on American hardware rather than hitching rides on Russian rockets," the paper said.

It went on to say "the secretive aspects of Elon Musk's ventures is fine when he's spending his own money (or investors' money) to build electric cars or bore tunnels through the ground. It's not fine when the public is bankrolling his efforts, as it is with SpaceX's crewed spaceflight program."

At the ASAP meeting Thursday, Sanders said the mishap occurred "during a static fire test conducted prior to the in-flight abort test." The goal, she said, was to collect vibration and acoustic measurements in the abort environment.

"Firing of eight Super Dracos resulted in an anomaly," she said. "The test site was fully cleared and all safety protocol was followed. The mishap did not result in any injuries."

Sandy Magnus, an ASAP member and former astronaut, said even before the Demo 1 launch NASA and SpaceX had identified configuration changes and other work "that would be required to be completed before Demo 2 was possible."

"Notwithstanding the recent incident, there is a large body of work yet to be completed between Demo 1 and a crewed flight," she said. "It's still too early to speculate on how that body of work will alter based on recent events."

She stressed the Commercial Crew Program will not clear astronauts for launch "until the program has received the data they require to ensure that we understand the margins, that we are controlling those margins and that we are operating in the environment that those margins require. And we will continue to emphasize that theme as the work goes forward."

SpaceX and Boeing are both building crew ferry ships in an $8 billion push by NASA to restore America's ability to launch U.S. and partner astronauts to space in the wake of the space shuttle's retirement in 2011.

Boeing holds multiple contracts valued at $4.82 billion to develop the CST-100 Starliner, a capsule that will launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

SpaceX holds contracts totaling some $3.1 billion to develop the Crew Dragon, designed to launch atop the company's Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX holds a separate cargo contract valued at $3.04 billion for 20 space station resupply flights and another contract for an unspecified amount for at least six additional flights through 2024.

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