SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft suffers anomaly during ground tests

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Updated 8:15 p.m. Eastern.

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft suffered what the company said was an “anomaly” during static fire tests of its abort engines April 20, dealing a setback to the company’s plans to fly a crewed test flight later this year.

In a statement, a SpaceX spokesperson confirmed there was a problem of some kind during tests of the spacecraft at Landing Zone 1, the former Launch Complex 13 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, but provided few details about the what happened.

“Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida,” the spokesperson said in a statement to SpaceNews. “The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand.”

“Ensuring that our systems meet rigorous safety standards and detecting anomalies like this prior to flight are the main reasons why we test,” the spokesperson added. “Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners.”

“The NASA and SpaceX teams are assessing the anomaly that occurred today during a part of the Dragon Super Draco Static Fire Test at SpaceX Landing Zone 1 in Florida,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement posted to Twitter. “This is why we test. We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our Commercial Crew Program.”

Eyewitnesses on beaches near Cape Canaveral reported seeing a dark cloud mid-afternoon from somewhere in the vicinity of the Air Force facility. The U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing, which operates Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, confirmed there was an incident during a Crew Dragon test, which resulted in no injuries.

The anomaly apparently took place during testing of the SuperDraco thrusters used as part of the launch abort system for the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Those thrusters use nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine propellants, a hypergolic combination that ignites on contact. Each SuperDraco thruster is capable of producing about 16,000 pounds-force of thrust.

SpaceX did not disclose what Crew Dragon vehicle was being used for this test. Sources, though, say it was mostly likely the spacecraft that flew the successful Demo-1 mission in March, docking with the International Space Station and staying there for five days before undocking and splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast.

SpaceX planned to fly that spacecraft again in an in-flight abort test, where the spacecraft ignites its SuperDraco thrusters around the time of peak aerodynamic pressure after launch, pulling it away from its Falcon 9 booster. That test was expected to take place some time this summer prior to this anomaly.

Any delay in that test would push back the Demo-2 flight, a test of another Crew Dragon spacecraft with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board. That mission was scheduled for as soon as July, but not expected to take place before this fall.