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Crew capsule destroyed during April test accident, confirms SpaceX

The $3 billion project aims to send 81 satellites to low-Earth orbit in coming months. In photo: A Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on January 14, 2017. Photograph:( AFP )

Reuters Cape Canaveral, FL, USA May 03, 2019, 08.32 AM (IST)

Nearly two weeks after a fiery explosion during a ground test of its new crew capsule, SpaceX confirmed on Thursday that the vehicle was destroyed, but neither the company nor NASA, its primary customer, have publicly acknowledged the nature of the mishap.

Instead, Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability for California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp, known as SpaceX, continued to refer to the accident simply as an "anomaly" - science jargon for when something goes wrong.

The April 20th accident occurred on a landing zone at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as SpaceX was conducting a test of emergency thrusters designed to propel the capsule, dubbed Crew Dragon, to safety from atop the rocket in the event of a launch failure.

An attempt to test-fire the eight SuperDraco engines triggered the accident, demolishing the entire vehicle on a test stand, Koenigsmann told reporters at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

"Just prior, before we wanted to fire the SuperDraco, there was an anomaly and the vehicle was destroyed," Koenigsmann said on Thursday. "There were no injuries. SpaceX had taken all safety measures prior to this test, as we always do."

The news conference was called ahead of Friday's scheduled launch of an unmanned resupply mission to the international space station using a cargo-only capsule built by SpaceX, the private rocket venture of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

When pressed, Koenigsmann declined to characterize the nature of the accident, including whether an explosion or fire was involved. NASA has likewise demurred when asked to describe the mishap.

A leaked video of the accident, which was acknowledged as authentic by a NASA contractor in an internal memo obtained by the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, showed the astronaut capsule blasting into smithereens. A pall of smoke was also widely observed rising over the launch pad from a distance at the time of the ill-fated test.

The Crew Dragon had been scheduled to carry US astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station in a test mission in July, although the recent accident, as well as some other hitches in the vehicle's design, are likely to push that schedule to later in the year or into 2020. 

"It’s certainly not great news for the schedule overall, but I hope we can recover," Koenigsmann said.

The destroyed vehicle was one of six such capsules built or in late production by SpaceX, and the first flown into space. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched it without crew to the space station in March for a six-day visit before returning to Earth, splashing down safely in the Atlantic for retrieval.

"We have no reason to believe there is an issue with the SuperDracos themselves," Koenigsmann said, adding that the engines have been tested nearly 600 times in the past.

NASA has been awarded $6.8 billion to SpaceX and rival Boeing Co to develop separate capsule systems to fly astronauts to space, but both companies have faced technical challenges and delays.