It has been almost two months since a SpaceX Dragon II capsule exploded during testing, and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has now confirmed publicly that the “anomaly” has pushed back the launch schedule. Boeing has also encountered issues with its CST-100 Starliner vehicle. At this rate, crewed launches with commercial rockets may not happen this year.
SpaceX hasn’t issued an official report on the April explosion, and the investigation could take months to complete. In the weeks before the incident, SpaceX launched that same spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) without a crew. The vessel docked with the ISS on full autopilot, and then returned to Earth. The Dragon II used its parachutes to land gently in the ocean where it was picked up and transported to SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral test facility.
It’s unclear if the explosion points to a design issue with the Dragon or if it was simply a case of damage from the landing. If it’s the latter, NASA may not require any changes for the Commercial Crew Program — it won’t be flying any reused vehicles on crewed missions. SpaceX might be a little concerned, though, as it plans to fly Dragon II missions with refurbished hardware. Some observers have speculated the problem may be with SpaceX’s SuperDraco abort engines, which run on liquid rather than solid fuel like most spacecraft.
The Dragon II capsule after it returned to Earth in April. It later exploded.
Whatever the outcome, Jim Bridenstine concedes this has pushed back the Commercial Crew timeline. “There is no doubt the schedule will change,” he said at a press event in Paris. SpaceX was in the lead as both it and Boeing work toward the goal of sending humans to the ISS. Boeing fell behind last year when a fuel leak on its CST-100 Starliner vehicle appeared during testing.
The SpaceX crewed launch is still technically on the books for July, but it sounds like that won’t happen. Boeing is currently on track to complete its uncrewed test flight in November with the crewed flight coming just a few weeks later.
In the meantime, NASA uses Russian Soyuz capsules for transportation to and from the ISS. However, it’s running low on seats, which could spell trouble if neither SpaceX nor Boeing can get things sorted out by the time NASA’s Soyuz contracts run out next year.
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