SpaceX's Crew Dragon accident puts timeline of NASA's human spaceflight program into question


ORLANDO, Fla. – The SpaceX spacecraft that flew to the International Space Station just over a month ago experienced an apparent explosion during a test of its engines Saturday, putting into question the schedule for NASA's highly anticipated program to return astronauts to space from American soil. 

SpaceX confirmed Sunday that the Crew Dragon astronaut capsule involved in the company's successful test run in March was the vehicle that sent plumes of orange smoke over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station when an "anomaly" happened during testing Saturday afternoon. The company has not confirmed the extent of the damage, but the accident was big enough to produce a radar signature. No one was hurt.

Exactly how things will shake out for NASA's program, called Commercial Crew, is still unknown. In 2014, NASA awarded SpaceX $2.6 billion and Boeing $4.2 billion to develop astronaut capsules as part of the program to ween the U.S. off its dependency on Russia to send U.S. astronauts to space. Those efforts were expected to culminate this year with crewed flights — the first from the U.S. since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.

But the uncertainty around the future of the program may be largely because the move to have private companies lead U.S. human spaceflight efforts is unprecedented, said space policy expert John Logsdon. He is a professor emeritus at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and a former member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

"It's a tricky issue with respect to SpaceX or with respect to the fact that we are pursuing crew transport through a commercial path," Logsdon said. "There are not the same obligations for transparency that would be the case if this were under NASA management. We are now ... two days past the incident, (and) we still don't know what happened."

But, Logsdon cautioned, it's still too early to say how, exactly, the anomaly will affect the program.

"It's hard to say that this is anything but a negative," he said. "Test failures are part of the business."

Initial data indicates the issue happened while the capsule was undergoing static fire testing of its eight SuperDraco engines at its test stand at Landing Zone 1, SpaceX said. The company is working with NASA to investigate the cause. The accident was first reported by Florida Today, when photographer Craig Bailey captured the smoke rising over Cocoa Beach.

"This is why we test," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Saturday. "We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our Commercial Crew Program."

Until this weekend, SpaceX was ahead of Boeing in the endeavor, having successfully put its Crew Dragon capsule _ without astronauts inside _ through a successful launch, docking with the International Space Station and splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean last month.

The company was on track to perform an in-flight abort test of the same capsule that flew to space in the coming months, proving to NASA that it could jettison the vehicle away from the rocket in the case of an issue during the harshest moment of its ascent. During that test, the rocket would begin to shut down its engines while Crew Dragon's SuperDraco engines — the ones involved in Saturday's anomaly — ignited to carry the capsule away from the Falcon 9 rocket.

That would have been the last test before NASA approved SpaceX to put astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside a new, updated version of the Crew Dragon vehicle for a crewed test set for no earlier than July.

But with the first Crew Dragon at least damaged, it's unlikely SpaceX will be able to turn it around for the in-flight abort test, putting into question the company's entire timeline.

SpaceX would not comment on whether its schedule was in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, Boeing also is performing its tests later than originally planned, moving the first full test of its CST-100 Starliner capsule to August instead of April. The company plans to squeak its crewed test into 2019 with a flight carrying astronauts Chris Ferguson, Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann in November.