SpaceX to test astronaut capsule next week, a critical milestone after April explosion

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule next to the company’s Falcon 9 rocket in a hangar at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.


In about a week SpaceX expects to conduct a key test of the capsule it is developing to launch astronauts, as the company looks to show it fixed an issue that caused an empty capsule to explode during testing in April.

The capsule, known as Crew Dragon, is SpaceX’s spacecraft to carry as many as seven people to the International Space Station and more. After a successful test flight to the space station and back in March – a mission known as Demo-1 – SpaceX performed a “static fire” of the capsule’s SuperDraco engines, which would be used only in the event of an emergency. A static fire is a term in the space industry for a specific type of test, where a rocket engine is strapped down to the ground and fired up, to simulate the motor during flight and show it operates smoothly.

But near the end of the April test there was an anomaly, creating an explosive chain reaction that resulted in the destruction of the Demo-1 capsule. After an investigation alongside the company’s government partners, SpaceX issued a full statement on its website detailing that it discovered a leaking component set off the anomaly.

With a new SuperDraco system on a new Crew Dragon capsule, SpaceX is set to conduct its next static fire on Nov. 2 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, people familiar with the plans told CNBC. While the specific date may change if there are any last moment delays, the test and its results will be closely watched by SpaceX, NASA and its astronauts, the U.S. Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.’

SpaceX declined CNBC’s request for comment.

The test is set to happen at the same place the April anomaly occurred, the people said: SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, or LZ-1. Like the previous test, a temporary test stand is being set up at LZ-1 for the capsule. As indicated by SpaceX’s name for the facility, the company typically uses LZ-1 to land the boosters of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

Critical tests remain for SpaceX

SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently hosted NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the company’s headquarters in Los Angeles, as the Crew Dragon program is in its final stages of development. Musk noted that the primary mission for Demo-1 was a success, as the anomaly happened as SpaceX conducted additional testing looking to push the capsule’s boundaries.

“You’re trying to find extreme corner cases of where things go wrong,” Musk said.

“You don’t do tests because you think everything’s going to be fine, you do tests to find out what’s not going to be fine,” Musk added. “I think there’s a fundamental principle: Make sure you fail on the test stand so you do not fail in flight.”

Bridenstine has publicly pressured SpaceX to deliver on its part of the $2.6 billion Commercial Crew contract the company received in 2014. While NASA’s leader told CNBC that Crew Dragon “could be ready in the first quarter of next year,” Bridenstine also emphasized that the current timeline is very fluid given the importance of the final tests.

“What we’re trying to do is get back to a day where we have realistic costs and schedules,” Bridenstine said at the event. “Right now, the one program that we need the most credibility in the fastest is the Commercial Crew program. And SpaceX is a big part of that.”

If the Crew Dragon static fire test goes well, SpaceX could be ready for its next milestone by mid-December, Musk has said. SpaceX would test Crew Dragon in what is called an “in flight abort.” That means SpaceX will launch an uncrewed capsule on top of one of its Falcon 9 rockets and then, shortly after liftoff, intentionally trigger Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco emergency escape system. Meanwhile, SpaceX is also conducting 10 or more test of the capsules parachute system, to verify that it can reliably and safely return to Earth.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is rolled out for the Demo-1 mission in March.

NASA | Joel Kowsky

Commercial Crew is NASA’s solution to once again launch U.S. astronauts from U.S. soil. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, astronauts have flown to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft — at a cost to NASA of more than $70 million per seat.

But the first Commercial Crew launches have been delayed from the original target of 2017, as delays have mounted for both SpaceX and Boeing. The latter company is building its own Starliner capsule for Commercial Crew. Notably, Boeing received almost 40% more funding, having won $4.2 billion under the 2014 contract. Boeing also suffered a number of setbacks while testing its capsule, including a failure of Starliner’s propulsion systems.

Boeing plans to conduct an uncrewed test flight of Starliner on Dec. 17, which will be similar to SpaceX’s Demo-1 mission.

Astronauts watching Crew Dragon testing closely

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk speaks with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, along with astronauts Victor Glover, Doug Hurley, Bob Behnken and Mike Hopkins, in front of the company’s Crew Dragon capsule.

NASA | Joel Kowsky

Two NASA astronauts will be on SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission: Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. The flight will be SpaceX’s first with crew on board and the pair have been working closely with the company to prepare. When Bridenstine toured SpaceX headquarters two weeks ago, Behnken and Hurley were along and spoke to media about their preparation.

Most notably, the astronauts addressed the April explosion, explaining how they experienced it and what they sought from SpaceX to give them confidence to fly on Crew Dragon.

“The team mobilized incredibly – both on the NASA side and the SpaceX side – to come up with why did this happen, what can we do to fix it, how can we rebuild the capsule and make it safer for crews and the future,” Hurley said. “And that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

Behnken said he and Hurley had been at the Florida site just before the test failure happened, explaining SpaceX kept the astronauts informed during the investigation and cleanup of the anomaly.

“I just really appreciate how much insight we’ve been able to have and how quickly we’ve been able to have it in each of these cases where something like this has come up,” Behnken said.

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