SpaceX suffered a setback on Saturday when a test-fire accident sent up a plume of orange smoke from the pad where its Crew Dragon astronaut capsule’s escape system engines were being tested.
In a statement on Twitter, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the anomaly happened during part of a static fire test of the Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco engines at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The SuperDraco engines power the capsule’s launch abort system, which is designed to propel astronauts away from the rocket in the case of a catastrophic launch failure.
Bridenstine tweeted that NASA and SpaceX were “assessing the anomaly.” The extent of damage was unclear from Bridenstine’s statement. SpaceX said Sunday the test area was clear at the time and no one was injured.
The company said a investigation would be needed to determine probable cause.
SpaceX had been set to fly the capsule with a crew aboard on another test flight this year. It is unclear how Saturday’s accident could affect that launch schedule.
“This is why we test,” Bridenstine said in the Twitter statement. “We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our Commercial Crew program.”
The Hawthorne-based rocket company had been conducting a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test capsule Saturday at the company’s test stand at Cape Canaveral, a SpaceX representative said in a statement. Although initial tests were completed successfully, “the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand,” SpaceX said in the statement.
“Ensuring that our systems meet rigorous safety standards and detecting anomalies like this prior to flight are the main reasons why we test,” SpaceX said. “Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners.”
A photo taken Saturday by Florida Today visual journalist Craig Bailey showed a plume of orange smoke rising above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
SpaceX said Sunday that the test capsule involved in Saturday’s anomaly was the one that flew in March during the first uncrewed launch of the Crew Dragon.
That capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station and then returned to Earth on parachutes before landing in the Atlantic Ocean. It was set to be reused in June for an in-flight abort test, in which the spacecraft would be launched atop a rocket and then detached prematurely to test its emergency escape system.
SpaceX is building another Crew Dragon capsule that is set to carry astronauts in the crewed flight test.