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SpaceX has announced via an official update and conference call the preliminary results of a failure investigation convened immediately after Crew Dragon capsule C201 exploded in the midst of an April 20th static fire test.
Hosted by SpaceX Vice President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann and NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Lueders, the call provided some minor additional insight beyond a fairly extensive press release issued just prior. According to the preliminary results from SpaceX’s failure investigation, Crew Dragon’s explosion was unrelated to the spacecraft’s propellant tanks, Draco maneuvering thrusters, or SuperDraco abort engines. Rather, the cause lies in a more exotic and unanticipated chemical/material interaction between a plumbing valve, liquid oxidizer, and a helium-based pressurization system.
Hans - Koenigsmann - SpaceX - % - Way
According to Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX is approximately 80% of the way through what is known as the fault tree, essentially meaning that the failure investigation is 80% complete. That additional 20% could certainly throw some curveballs but the SpaceX executive was fairly confident that the results presented on July 15th would be representative of the final conclusion.
The ultimate (likely) cause of Crew Dragon’s extremely energetic and destructive explosion centers around the spacecraft’s extensive SuperDraco/Draco plumbing and its associated pressurization system, which uses helium to keep the pressure-fed engines, propellant tanks, and feed lines around 2400 psi (16.5 megapascals). Necessarily, this method of pressurization means that there is direct contact between the pressurant (helium) and the oxidizer/fuel, thus requiring some sort of valve preventing the pressurized fluid from flowing into the pressurization system.
Crew - Dragon - Capsule - C201 - April
During flight-proven Crew Dragon capsule C201’s April 20th static fire testing, that is reportedly exactly what happened. Over the course of ground testing, a “check valve” separating the pressurization system and oxidizer leaked what SpaceX described as a “slug” of nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer (NTO) into the helium pressurization lines. Around T-100...
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