3D printed engines not to blame in SpaceX Crew Dragon accident

This is a guest post contribution by Egor Driagin, Chief Marketing Officer at Top 3D Shop.

Hans Koenigsmann, the vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX commented on the destruction of a Crew Dragon capsule. The spacecraft was destroyed during engine testing on April 21. The vice president of Build and Flight Reliability sees no solid ground for thinking that the 3D printed engines are to blame for the accident. The SuperDraco engines were manufactured using the Selective Laser Melting (SLM) technology

The investigation is still ongoing and thus far, SpaceX hasn’t unveiled any details in public statements. Hans Koenigsmann, however, corroborated that the accident happened prior to firing the engines. He stressed that the anomaly occurred about half a second before ignition, during the activation of the thrusters. The activation procedure involves pressure build-up, which is done to check the auxiliary systems and make sure they are all fully operational.

“At the test stand we powered up Dragon and it powered up as expected. We completed tests with the Draco thrusters – the Draco thrusters are the smaller thrusters that are also on Dragon 1, the Cargo Dragon. We fired them in two sets, each for five seconds, and that went very well. And just prior before we wanted to fire the SuperDraco there was an anomaly and the vehicle was destroyed”, Hans Koenigsmann said in his statement during a press conference on May 2nd.  “There were no injuries. SpaceX had taken all safety measures prior to this test, as we always do. And because this was a ground test we have a higher amount of data, or a huge amount of data, from the vehicle and the ground sensors.”

Hans Koenigsmann

The company is determined to find the root of the problem that triggered the accident.  Although the cause of the explosion still remains under investigation, Koenigsmann ruled out the possibility of engines malfunctioning. “While it is too early to confirm any cause, whether probable or crude, the initial data indicates that the anomaly occurred during the activation of the SuperDraco system. That said, we’re looking at all possible issues and the investigation is ongoing. We have no reason to believe there is an issue with the SuperDracos themselves. Those have been through about 600 tests at our test facility in Texas and you also know about the pad abort, we did some hover tests, so there was a lot of testing on the SuperDraco and we continue to have high confidence in that particular thruster.”

The accident will not affect the International Space Station (ISS) resupply missions that will proceed according to schedule. However, the launch of the Dragon resupply ship waiting for its 17th delivery flight was postponed by 24 hours. The delay occurred due to helium leak and electrical fault on SpaceX’s Of course I still love you droneship.

A point to keep in mind is that there are a number of differences between the design of cargo and manned spacecraft. In particular, cargo ships are not equipped with the SuperDraco thrusters, as they are a part of the launch abort system (LAS) and, therefore, useless for unmanned spacecraft. At the same time, both versions of ships are equipped with Draco vernier thrusters that are also manufactured using the SLM technology. No issues have been raised so far concerning their functional capability. Koenigsmann expressed his hope that the quick investigation would be carried out in order to correct all the flaws as fast as possible and continue the test flights.

The vice president stressed that in the event of a quick investigation the company would be able to catch up with the original schedule. SpaceX specialists alongside with NASA representatives are taking part in the investigation. The loss of an experimental ship will not pose a serious problem, since SpaceX owns several similar spacecraft of the same type and constructing a new one from scratch is not required.

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