What SpaceX's latest failure means for the rest of American spaceflight

The Crew Dragon’s engine test anomaly this past weekend will have dramatic consequences over the next year, and beyond.

spacex crew dragon on top of the falcon 9 rocket
SpaceX is at the forefront of the public eye, after a failed engine test at the company’s landing site in Cape Canaveral, Florida likely resulted in the destruction of the company’s Crew Dragon vehicle.SpaceX

The problem with failing in spaceflight is that your failures are extremely loud and incredibly public. Once again, SpaceX is at the forefront of the public eye, after a failed engine test at the company's landing site in Cape Canaveral, Florida likely resulted in the destruction of the company's Crew Dragon vehicle—the same spacecraft that SpaceX is developing and testing to take astronauts into low Earth orbit. It's still unclear what caused the accident, but almost certainly the repercussions are going to push back plans to return human spaceflight operations to American soil.

Here's what we know: On April 20, SpaceX conducted a routine launchpad test of its Crew Dragon vehicle—specifically, the same one that pulled off a successful uncrewed test flight in March into space which docked at the International Space Station. The company is currently preparing for an important test of the vehicle's launch abort systems this summer. This trial would demonstrate the spacecraft's ability to fire its newly designed SuperDraco engines (parts of which have been made through 3D printing) and pull onboard astronauts to a safe distance away from the Falcon 9 booster .

According to Florida Today, and other eyewitness accounts, a huge wave of smoke began billowing from the launchpad. A video of the incident has now been taken offline, but Ars Technica reports it showed the company counting down towards the firing of the Crew Dragon's SuperDraco engines, when the spacecraft inexplicably exploded within the final 10 seconds of the countdown.

In its official statement released on Saturday, SpaceX describes the accident as an “anomaly,” and states: “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 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. Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners.”

On NASA’s end, administrator Jim Bridenstine issued the following statement: “The NASA and SpaceX teams are assessing the anomaly that occurred today during a part of the Dragon SuperDraco Static Fire Test at SpaceX Landing Zone 1 in Florida. This is why we test. We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our Commercial Crew Program.”

It’s still not clear what exactly caused the explosion and the extent of the damage the Crew Dragon received, but it’s almost certainly destroyed beyond reasonable or swift repair. The destruction of the capsule is bad news for the company’s plans to conduct its summer launch abort test. It will either need to use another Crew Dragon vehicle for the test (which were likely built for actual crewed missions, and not to be expended on a single test), or create some kind of stripped-down substitute capsule capable of demonstrating the SuperDraco thrusters.

The latter is not out of the question, but we’re talking about a vehicle that’s supposed to send NASA astronauts into space. Safety is of utmost importance for the public agency, and it won’t tolerate any kind of testing that does not meet its safety standards for sending human beings into orbit.. The hope was to have the vehicle prepared for its first crewed flight in July, but now that schedule is likely to change.

SpaceX is certainly no stranger to explosive setbacks. The company's most recent high-profile accident occurred in September 2016, when a launchpad fire engulfed a Falcon 9 rocket (destroying a Facebook satellite in the process). The resulting loss in hardware, delays in launch schedules, and at least one customer withdrawal cost the company an estimated $740 million in lost revenue.

The new setback likely won't cost SpaceX nearly as much money, and the investigation into what happened this time around should be fairly swift. But it does put NASA in a stressful (if familiar) situation: Its options for carrying its astronauts into space are once again grim. Eight years after the Space Shuttle program was shuttered, NASA has relied on Russian Soyuz missions to take people to the ISS. September was supposed to be the last time American astronauts were to fly to the space station from foreign soil. If the first crewed Crew Dragon mission slips, it might very well force NASA to procure even more Soyuz mission seats, which last time around cost $75 million apiece. Earlier this year, NASA announced it would likely purchase additional future Soyuz seats to guarantee a U.S. presence on the space station through September 2020. That's almost a certainty at this point.

The explosion might create consequences felt further down the road as well. The last few months have been filled with chatter resulting from the White House's new deadline for NASA to return humans to the moon by 2024, and SpaceX has been seen as a potential launch provider through its Falcon Heavy rocket (which just completed a very successful second ever mission). The launchpad explosion might very well cause some to get skittish and rethink whether its wise to entrust such a young company with such important missions, sophisticated hardware, and the safety of NASA astronauts.

Still, this is all early talk. “We do not know yet what actually happened, so it is premature to speculate on the length of delay for SpaceX or its severity,” says John Logsdon, the founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. He’s especially skeptical of reading into what this accident might do for future Falcon Heavy plans, saying its too early to postulate until there’s more information.

Logsdon points out that accidents are par for the course when it comes to spaceflight, and while the public might be surprised to hear of such events, few within the space community feel the same way. “During Apollo there was the Apollo 1 fire, which delayed the program with beneficial results, and also multiple problems on the second Saturn V test launch, which were quickly remedied. During Space Shuttle development there were multiple engine problems and problems with the tiles, putting the program well behind schedule. So this incident has many precedents.”

And lastly, it’s worth remembering there’s another company contracted by NASA under the Commercial Crew Program: Boeing, which is still in the process of preparing its CST-100 Starliner vehicle for an uncrewed flight to the ISS in August, followed by a crewed flight before the end of 2019. “This incident should have no impact on Boeing's schedule,” says Logsdon.

For now, we’ll have to wait and see what the investigation behind the explosion tells us, and whether SpaceX can mitigate the effects this will have on its own—and NASA’s—human exploration plans in the near future.