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SpaceX ‘anomaly’ happened during test of Crew Dragon escape-system engines

SpaceX ‘anomaly’ happened during test of Crew Dragon escape-system engines
Smoke rises over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as seen from Cocoa Beach, Fla., on Saturday. (Craig Bailey / Florida Today)

SpaceX was test-firing the escape-system engines on its Crew Dragon capsule when this weekend’s accident occurred, a NASA safety advisory board said Thursday.

It’s not clear what happened Saturday to cause a plume of orange smoke to billow above the test site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The smoke could be seen for miles. SpaceX and NASA have described the problem as an “anomaly.”

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NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel — which provides safety recommendations to the agency’s administrator — said Thursday that an investigation into the root cause would take time.

SpaceX is leading the investigation with active participation from NASA, said Patricia Sanders, the panel’s chair.

The Hawthorne company conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test capsule Saturday. It said initial tests were successfully completed, but the final test — which involved firing the capsule’s eight SuperDraco escape system engines — “resulted in an anomaly on the test stand.” No one was injured.

The status of the capsule is unclear. Photos taken by Florida Today journalist Craig Bailey showed the orange smoke rising above Cape Canaveral. Propulsion and chemical experts have said the color could indicate that nitrogen tetroxide — one of two propellants that power the capsule’s escape system engines — was involved . Those propellants immediately ignite when combined.

The capsule involved in Saturday’s test was the same one that launched in March without a crew and docked at the International Space Station for the first time before returning to Earth. A crewed test flight had been expected as early as July, but NASA said it was unclear how Saturday’s accident would affect the schedule.

Sanders said Thursday that early efforts in the investigation are focused on “site saving,” data collection and developing a timeline of how the accident occurred.

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