Five days after the accident, few details were available. But it has been confirmed that SpaceX was testing some of Crew Dragon's engines at the time of the explosion. The manned cabin is equipped with eight small thrusters called SuperDraco engines, which are critical for future flight emergencies. If problems occur during launch, these engines can ignite and keep the crew away from the failed rocket.
On April 20, SpaceX was testing the engines on its landing pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, where many Falcon 9 rockets landed. In these tests, known as static ignition, the manned cabin is fixed when the engine is ignited; this allows the company to test hardware while preventing the manned cabin from actually reaching anywhere. According to a meeting of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) in Huntsville, Alabama, on Thursday, when SpaceX started all eight SuperDraco engines, an explosion occurred. Video on Twitter has been deleted, showing that the manned cabin is completely covered by smoke. Photographs taken by Florida Today photographers from afar also show a large amount of smoke rising along the coastline.
SpaceX is currently developing Crew Dragon as part of NASA's commercial crew program, a spacecraft that will send astronauts to the International Space Station. The manned module, which was tested on Saturday, passed a huge milestone in its first test flight in March and sent it to the International Space Station. The manned module proved it could dock with the International Space Station and land safely in the Atlantic after a week in space.
SpaceX tentatively plans to use Crew Dragon to transport the first passengers in July, a date far from being confirmed before the accident. This flight is almost certainly not going to happen this summer. ASAP noted that all safety procedures were followed after the accident and that no one was injured. During the meeting, ASAP President Patricia Sanders said, "NASA and SpaceX immediately implemented the agency's Accident Plan and company guidelines, and SpaceX is actively participating in NASA's investigation work. Currently, SpaceX focuses on rescuing accident sites, collecting data, and proposing timetables for events that lead to accidents. It may take us some time to know how the company will recover. The investigation will take time before the root cause analysis is completed.
The explosion has had some impact on the company. SpaceX will launch a cargo dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station next weekend, but the company will have to land its rocket on an unmanned ship because the landing pad has failed.
The extent of damage to Crew Dragon in the manned cabin is unclear, but according to the images appearing after the accident, the specific Crew Dragon does not seem to be in good condition. Neither SpaceX nor NASA has disclosed future testing plans.
In addition to figuring out the cause of the accident, the company seems to have a lot of work to do to actually use Crew Dragon to transport astronauts. Even before the accident, NASA and the company identified many changes and tasks that needed to be completed before Crew Dragon could carry astronauts.
"Despite a recent incident, a lot of work has not yet been done between [flight test without flight] and manned flight," Sandy Magnus, a former NASA astronaut and ASAP member, said at the meeting. "Based on recent events, it is too early to speculate how this work will change." The team also recommended that SpaceX and NASA's other commercial crew partners, Boeing, should not be pressured to keep going as planned. NASA is still able to send astronauts to the International Space Station via the Russian Soyuz. Therefore, there is still some time for commercial crew spacecraft to be ready for mission.
"We have confidence in SpaceX," NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Martin told the Orlando Sentinel. "Other information will be released later."