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A dark cloud on commercial crew's horizon



 Crew Dragon test

A SpaceX Crew Dragon prototype during an earlier test of the vehicle's SuperDraco thrusters, implicated in the incident at Cape Canaveral April 20. (credit: SpaceX)





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 It was not clear at first what caused the dark cloud spotted that sunny Saturday afternoon on Florida's Space Coast, but it could not have been good ,
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 On that afternoon, surfers and other beachgoers, as well as a newspaper photographer, saw a dark, reddish cloud rising from somewhere in the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. With no launches or other test activities publicized in advance, what caused it to be a mystery.
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BREAKING: #SpaceX Crew Dragon is anomalyed during test fire today, according to a 45th Space Wing. Smoke could be seen on the beaches.

"On April 20, anomaly occurred at Cape Canaveral AFS during Dragon 2 static test fire." Anomaly was contained and no injuries. " pic.twitter.com/If5rdeGRXO

– Emre Kelly April 20, 2019

By late in the day, base officials and SpaceX had announced what happened: the company was testing its Crew Dragon vehicle at Landing Zone 1 (the former Launch Complex 13 at Cape Canaveral) when something went wrong.

"Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The initial tests were completed in an anomaly on the test, "a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement. We are testing rigorous safety standards and detecting anomalies. Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners. "

More than a week later, that's the extent of what SpaceX has revealed about the incident, or anomaly, or mishap. The status of the ongoing investigation. NASA-funded program, the company should be open more.

"NASA should not enable search secrecy unless a program involves military secrets, which argues Orlando Sentinel in an editorial last Wednesday. The agency, it argued, should require SpaceX and the other commercial crew company, Boeing, "to be more transparent and forthcoming."

NASA does not appear to be pressing SpaceX to provide more information. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said NASA and SpaceX were working to assess the incident. "We want to learn, make the necessary adjustments and move forward with our Commercial Crew Program," he said.

His statement did one of the facts: it took place during a test of the spacecraft's SuperDraco thrusters, which are designed to propel the spacecraft away from its Falcon 9 launch vehicle. The Thrusters have been used as deferred indefinitely in favor of splashdowns). The thrusters use the hypergolic propellant combination of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide; indicative of nitrogen tetroxide.

The NASA's Independent Safety Committee (ASAP) is pleased to announce that the incident has come to a close during a meeting Thursday. Draco thrusters of the spacecraft were completed successfully, asap chairwoman Patricia Sanders said. "Firing of eight SuperDracos results in anomaly," she said, but did not elaborate on the details of that test or the resulting anomaly.

SpaceX is getting the investigation from the anomaly, she said, with NASA involvement, as they worked to secure the test site and collect data. She and other panel members called for patience, giving investigators time to study what happened. "We know that there's a lot of interest in the recent SpaceX mishap. We are patient, and allow the teams to investigate, "said Sandra Magnus, to ASAP member and former astronaut.

While details about the accident remain scant, the implications of it are a little clearer. The Crew Dragon capsule involved in the incident was the same one that flew the uncrewed demo-1 test flight in March. Damaged, if not destroyed.

The capsule was taken to where it would have been taken. SuperDraco thrusts to pull away from a Falcon 9 after liftoff. That long-delayed test was a milestone of its ongoing commercial development contract but instead of an earlier-funded Space Act Agreement.

If that capsule in fact requires significant repairs, or is irreparably damaged, it would delay that in-flight abort test, perhaps for an extended period. That could, in turn, delay the demo-2 crewed flight to the space station, involving two NASA astronauts.

ASAP, at its meeting last week, is declined to speculate on the impact the anomaly wants to have on schedules. "The investigation will take time before the root cause analysis is completed, and will determine the impact to demo-2 and the in-flight abort test," Sanders said.

While Demo-2 was formally scheduled for no sooner than July, that flight more likely would have taken place later this year, even before the SuperDraco anomaly. Magnus noted that SpaceX had taken a "spiral" approach to development, incrementally adding capabilities. That meant that the company was still working to do, despite the successful demo-1 flight in March, before launching demo-2 (see "The beginning of the end of commercial crew development", The Space Review, March 11, 2019.)

"Prior to the demo-1 launch, because of this spiral development approach, NASA and SpaceX identified configuration changes and subsequent qualification that would be required before demo-2 was possible," she said , echoing comments made by NASA officials around the time of the demo-1 mission.

"Notwithstanding the recent incident, there is a large body of work being completed in a demo-1 and a crewed flight," she said, adding that it was too soon to speculate how the SuperDraco anomaly would affect that.

SpaceX is not the only company to suffer from its launch abort system. Last summer, Boeing encountered a problem with the abort system for its CST-100 Starliner vehicle. Several engine values ​​failed to close when ordered, the company said at the time.

That sounded like a minor minor problem-at least when compared to what SpaceX experienced-but it still causes significant delays for the problem. In an April 3 statement, NASA's New Sands Test Facility at NASA's White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico said it had "corrected the service. The agency said, "New hardware, including launch abort engine valves, has been redesigned and manufactured on the test abort engines," the agency said.

That statement came as follows: "Boeing's two commercial crew test flights", followed by a crewed test no earlier than November. Boeing had been aiming for May's uncrewed test, but said that-Atlas 5, June 11, 2011 – June 11, 2010 for that June mission.

That's the shortest time between Boeing-just three months-is feasible, Magnus suggested. "Boeing has taken a more traditional route, investing more effort to establish a more mature design from the outset," she said. She added, however, that the company still faced "the submission and analysis of the required data for the final certification and verification processes."
NASA astronauts by the end of this year.

NASA, since the agency's access to Soyuz seats is scheduled to run out by early 2020.

However, NASA has taken several steps in recent months to address the potential loss of access. Soyuz seats from Roscosmos that would provide access to the station into the fall of 2020.

Extending the stays of two ISS astronauts, NASA said, "so NASA allows for the most time dedicated to other research aboard the station, as well. commercial crew launch providers prepare for operations to and from U.S.

In addition, NASA announced April 17 that two ISS astronauts would stay on the station for longer than the standard six-month crew rotation. Christina Koch, who is coming to the station in March, wants to stay through next February, a 328-day stay that will set the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman. Andrew Morgan wants to stay on the station until next spring, a 255-day stay,

NASA said that it would not be possible for scientists to do so. "Scott Kelly's 340-day stay. But, NASA to get the most time dedicated to other research aboard the station, as well. commercial crew launch providers prepare for operations to and from U.S. soil and the space station. "

NASA announced in early April when it reported the new schedule of test flights. NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke, along with former astronaut and current Boeing employee Chris Ferguson, wants to spend potential months on the station under the new plan; NASA said the mission will be determined later.

ASAP praised NASA for those measures, which they argued help lessen schedule pressure on the commercial crew providers. "NASA has established a contingency plan to ensure continued US crewed access to the ISS through late 2020, providing for temporary margin as they advance toward crewed flights," Magnus said.

So, while the crew is still flying, it's clear that the crew has been forced to leave the Dragon Vehicle more than a week ago. But just as the dark cloud from the anomaly blew out to sea and dissipated, so too should the uncertainty clouding what happened to the spacecraft and its implications for the overall commercial crew program. Eventually.


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