We may be poised on the precipice of a new era of spaceflight, but leaping prematurely off it would be a costly mistake — which is why the delays and failures of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the new spacecraft that will likely be soonest to take humans to space, are a matter for concern but not worry. In space, you expect the unexpected.
The sudden explosion of a Crew Dragon test capsule is frightening and frankly embarrassing to a company so heavily focused on an image of futurity and reliability. And a failed parachute deployment doesn’t inspire confidence either. But any historian of the space industry will tell you it’s rare that something with rockets on it doesn’t blow up at some point during development.
The Commercial Crew program was established back in 2010 with the goal of sending a crewed mission to the International Space Station, aboard a new spacecraft, well before the end of the decade. The timeline was understood to be flexible, but budgetary, logistic and technical issues have continually pushed dates further and further out.
While it was once estimated that the first crewed flights might happen in 2018, that year passed without even a first test flight from either of the contracted spacecraft providers, Boeing and SpaceX. That changed in March with the latter’s successful first test flight of Crew Dragon (loaded with cargo, not people). And Boeing’s Starliner is scheduled for flight later this year. Dogged by delays, the companies’ years of hard work seemed to be paying off at last.
Then this disaster on the test pad occurred: Not just a tipped-over Starship shell or a booster lost to heavy seas, but a full-on explosion of a craft meant for crewed missions, an event which, there’s no way around it, would have been instantly lethal to anyone inside.
Of course, there wasn’t anyone inside. Because this was a test of systems that have not been finalized or brought up to spec. It failed, spectacularly, but that is how rockets tend to fail — with spectacle.
We saw this happen only because someone unwisely had recorded it and distributed the video online. Had they not, we would have heard there was an anomaly during the test and that this capsule was rendered unusable. That kind of phrasing, which goes back many decades in the industry, can mean many things, and its ambiguity is intentional — it’s meant to shield the public from the harsh reality of spaceflight, the risk inherent in the act of riding a bomb faster than sound to a place that’s trying to kill you.
Rockets and capsules and spacecraft have failed since the very beginning, and they will continue to fail because no one is satisfied with simply refining a design from the ’60s forever. Making advances in space means engineering at the very frontier of what’s possible — indeed, it frequently means expanding that frontier and doing what others thought impossible.
The recent failure in a parachute deployment test is equally alarming — because such a failure could conceivably be equally catastrophic — but again, as SpaceX’s representatives have put it again and again, “This is why we test.”
Previous, nearly identical tests of the parachutes didn’t fail completely (there are four chutes; one was made to fail on purpose, but in the recent test the others did not deploy either), but likely indicated modes of failure that the engineers needed to see. Just like pumping up a pressure vessel to well beyond its rated PSI in order to see how it performs under stress, this is about creating controlled failures in carefully observed environments. You invite failure into your home today so it doesn’t kick the door down on launch day.
It must also be said that these equipment failures are occurring within a larger context of making spaceflight far, far safer than it ever was. No one should entertain the illusion that spaceflight will ever be completely safe — nothing is, least of all traveling at thousands of miles per hour through a lethal vacuum or reentering the atmosphere within arm’s reach of temperatures hot enough to melt steel. But companies like SpaceX and Boeing (though its reputation for safety has been tarnished of late in a more lasting fashion) are making damn sure they’re doing everything they can to reduce that risk.
The shift from Russia’s amazingly reliable but aged Soyuz capsules to new spacecraft with entirely new capabilities is not a simple or easy one. These new craft have been developed from scratch with systems that will ultimately make them safer and more reliable than any in history. But right now both companies are still in the egg-breaking part of the omelette process.
This is not all to say that there will be no effect from these accidents. Confidence is thinned; missions are delayed; costs are incurred; competitors are emboldened. And pragmatically speaking, it seems unlikely that SpaceX will put a crew in space this year, given the severity of these events and the increased scrutiny the capsule and its testing will endure. But it’s all part of the process.
Delays are inherent to the space industry. It can be done fast, but it has to be done right. It’s disappointing when the dream of having a U.S.-built spacecraft delivering astronauts to the ISS is put off again and again, but the rewards for patience will be enormous. It’s done when it’s done. You wouldn’t want it a day before — especially if you were the one riding in it.