- SpaceX discovered an unexpected erosion of the heat shield of its Crew Dragon spacecraft after its first astronaut mission.
- A SpaceX executor said the crew members – NASA astronauts Bob Benken and Doug Hurley – had never been in danger.
- But as a precaution, SpaceX updated the heat shield before its next crew launch in October.
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SpaceX has discovered unexpected damage to part of its Crew Dragon space capsule after the spacecraft carried its first astronauts this summer, officials said Tuesday.
The Demo-2 mission flew NASA astronauts Bob Benken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on May 30. The two men remained there for two months, after which they suffered a fiery fall through the Earth̵
But as the company recovered and examined the toasted space capsule closely, inspectors noticed something unusual: deep erosion of Crew Dragon’s heat shield.
This thermal protection system is a collection of heat-resistant tiles that line the spacecraft’s vulnerable subcortex. It protects the Crew Dragon by deflecting and absorbing heat that can reach 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit as the space capsule descends through the atmosphere and creates overheated plasma as it returns to Earth.
SpaceX expected to find some wear, but not so much.
“We found a little more erosion on the tile than we wanted to see,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of construction and flight reliability, during a briefing Tuesday.
Koenigsman said the affected part of the heat shield was close to the “stresses” that connected the crew’s Dragon to its large cylindrical trunk. (The trunk helps propel the spacecraft into orbit, but is ejected before the spacecraft begins to re-enter.) One of the four areas around these tension connections faded deep from the burning plasma when Benken and Hurley returned to Earth.
Still, the spacecraft and its crew returned home safely despite the unexpected problem.
“The astronauts were safe at all times and the vehicle was working perfectly,” Koenigsman said.
NASA and SpaceX have updated the heat shield for the astronauts’ next mission
Before Benken and Hurley returned to Earth, Elon Musk, CEO and chief designer of SpaceX, said re-entry was the part of the mission he worried about most.
NASA is examining the heat shield for damage before this return flight, while the Crew Dragon capsule is still attached to the space station. During the two months associated with the orbital laboratory, small pieces of space debris could damage the ship’s heat shield. The inspection relied on a robotic hand from the space station and some on-board cameras, but did not cause any problems.
It wasn’t until Benken and Hurley returned safely to Earth that SpaceX discovered the weak spot in its heat shield.
But these are the types of problems that Benken and Hurley’s flight had to detect and resolve.
While theirs was considered a demo mission, Crew Dragon was to take over the crew of its first routine mission, called Crew-1. NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi are due to board the “Dragon Crew” on October 31.
NASA and SpaceX have already reinforced the vulnerable part of the heat shield before this flight, Koenigsman said.
“We went in and changed a lot of materials for better materials,” said Steve Stitch, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, which led SpaceX astronaut missions on Tuesday. “We’ve improved the area between these tiles.”
NASA is testing five samples of the new tile in a simulated re-entry simulation environment, a wind tunnel at its Ames Research Center in California.
“I am convinced that we have solved this particular problem very well,” Koenigsmann said. “Everything is tested and ready for the next mission.”
It is not clear why the excessive erosion of the heat shield did not occur during the previous demonstration mission – an unfolded test flight in which the Crew Dragon launched, landed at the space station and returned to Earth without passengers. Koenigsman suggested that the capsule may not have experienced the problem because it was lighter and had a slightly different trajectory for this mission.
“At the end of the day, it’s great that we found him during this trip,” he said. “It wasn’t a dangerous situation at all. It’s something we watched and then, in principle, we changed to make sure nothing bad ever happened.”