SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has revealed that the company is aiming to have all testing of the Crew Dragon spacecraft completed in 10 weeks.
Musk revealed the ambitious testing schedule in response to a tweet from Eric Berger, a senior editor at Ars Technica. Berger had quoted a source revealing that “full panic has ensued” as NASA begins to come to terms with the fact that commercial crew services may not be ready in the first half of 2020.
In response to Berger’s tweet, Musk stated that a schedule he had “just reviewed” would have all testing of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Crew Dragon spacecraft completed within 10 weeks. Musk revealed that this was possible thanks to the reallocation of resources away from other projects.
The two biggest hurdles facing the Crew Dragon are underperforming parachutes and a modified abort system that is yet to be certified by NASA.
During a hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on May 8, it was revealed the Crew Dragon spacecraft’s parachutes had failed an “advanced development test” in April 2019. During the test, one of the four parachutes was “proactively failed” to test the redundancy of the system. The three remaining chutes failed to deploy properly and the test sled hit the ground faster than expected.
Musk addressed issues with the parachutes in his response to Berger stating that SpaceX was working closely with Airbourne, the company’s parachute supplier. He explained that he had personally toured Airbourne’s Irvine factory over the weekend to see progress on the Mk3 chute.
The spacecraft’s abort system is, however, the larger concern. During a static fire test of the Crew Dragon spacecraft that was recovered following its first uncrewed test, an anomaly in the vehicle’s abort system caused an explosion. Following an investigation, the anomaly was identified as a “leaking component” that allowed liquid oxidizer to enter the spacecraft’s high-pressure helium tubes. A “slug” of oxidizer then impacted with a helium check valve which failed ultimately causing the explosion.
SpaceX have confirmed that the issues with the abort system discovered during the investigation have all since been rectified. However, according to NASA guidelines, if any revisions are made to the abort system, SpaceX is required to have the spacecraft recertified by the agency, which has not yet been.
Unlike the issues with the parachutes, Musk did not directly address the redesigned abort system. In response to another user, however, he revealed that the company was targeting late November to early December for an in-flight test of the system. It is currently unclear whether this test will be sufficient to recertify the spacecraft’s abort system.