SpaceX says a leaky valve was to blame for Crew Dragon explosion4 min read

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SpaceX says a leaky valve was to blame for Crew Dragon explosion in April, as VP admits firm’s plan to fly with astronauts on board this year has become ‘increasingly difficult’

  • SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule exploded during a ground test three months ago
  • Hans Koenigsmann, a SpaceX VP, said a check valve allowed liquid oxidizer to leak into the high-pressure abort system and the titanium valve then ignited
  • Anomaly was unexpected, check valves will be replaced with more reliable disks
  • SpaceX has been shooting to launch its first crewed Dragon flight later this year 

A leaky valve caused a SpaceX crew capsule to explode during a ground test back in April, destroying the spacecraft and dealing a blow to the company’s effort to launch astronauts.

The company announced the preliminary results of its accident investigation Monday.

SpaceX’s crew Dragon capsule had just returned, minus astronauts, from a successful test flight to the International Space Station and was undergoing a ground test April 20 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. 

The abort-system thrusters were 100 milliseconds away from firing, when the spacecraft exploded and was destroyed.

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Above, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule is pictured about 20 meters (66 feet) away from the International Space Station's Harmony module. SpaceX says a leaky valve caused its crew capsule to explode during a test back in April

Above, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule is pictured about 20 meters (66 feet) away from the International Space Station’s Harmony module. SpaceX says a leaky valve caused its crew capsule to explode during a test back in April

Hans Koenigsmann, a SpaceX vice president, said a check valve allowed a slug of liquid oxidizer to leak into the high-pressure abort system. The titanium valve ignited, leading to the blast. 

The check valves will be replaced with more reliable disks, according to Koenigsmann.

The valve failure was ‘something that we didn’t expect and a great lesson for us,’ he said. ‘My emphasis is really on making sure this is safe.’

Koenigsmann said the repairs to other capsules can be carried out alongside other work. But while it’s not impossible, ‘it’s getting increasingly difficult’ to fly astronauts on the capsule by year’s end, he told reporters. 

He declined to give a tentative launch date for the test flight with astronauts, adding that more issues could crop up in the coming months.

Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, also was reluctant to discuss potential launch dates for SpaceX – or even Boeing.

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The companies had been shooting to launch astronauts to the space station by the end of the year.

Boeing has yet to conduct a test spaceflight of its Starliner capsule without anyone on board; late summer is a possibility.

A cloud of orange smoke rises over nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, as seen from Cocoa Beach, Fla., after the SpaceX Dragon 2 capsule was destroyed during a test. SpaceX says a leaky valve caused its crew capsule to explode during the test back in April

A cloud of orange smoke rises over nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, as seen from Cocoa Beach, Fla., after the SpaceX Dragon 2 capsule was destroyed during a test. SpaceX says a leaky valve caused its crew capsule to explode during the test back in April

‘I hope it’s this year’ that astronaut flights resume from Cape Canaveral, Lueders said. ‘But we’re going to fly when it’s the right time and when we know that we’ll be flying our crews safely.’

NASA astronauts have not launched from the U.S. since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. 

Instead, NASA has been paying tens of millions of dollars per seat on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, to get astronauts to and from the space station.

SpaceX, meanwhile, has been launching space station supplies for NASA since 2012. The next liftoff is Sunday evening.

WHAT IS SPACEX’ CREW DRAGON CAPSULE?

The capsule measures about 20 feet tall by 12 feet in diameter, and will carry up to 7 astronauts at a time. 

The Crew Dragon features an advanced emergency escape system (which was tested earlier this year) to swiftly carry astronauts to safety if something were to go wrong, experiencing about the same G-forces as a ride at Disneyland. 

It also has an Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) that provides a comfortable and safe environment for crew members. 

Crew Dragon’s displays will provide real-time information on the state of the spacecraft’s capabilities, showing everything from Dragon’s position in space, to possible destinations, to the environment on board.  

Those CRS-2 Dragon missions will use ‘propulsive’ landings, where the capsule lands on a landing pad using its SuperDraco thrusters rather than splashing down in the ocean. 

 That will allow NASA faster access to the cargo returned by those spacecraft, and also build up experience for propulsive landings of crewed Dragon spacecraft.

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