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A Mysterious Launchpad ‘Anomaly’ and the Future of SpaceX

Earlier this week, SpaceX lost another spacecraft when a mysterious “anomaly” caused a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule to explode on the launchpad. While many analysts have used the incident to question if Elon Musk’s boastful predictions about SpaceX’s manned spaceflight capabilities might be too good to be true, NASA calmly forged ahead by stating simply “this is why we test.” Can Musk and SpaceX get astronauts safely into space?

SpaceX rocket exploding

You’ve got to break a few rocket eggs to make a SpaceX omelette.

The April 20 static engine test took place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. In the test, a Crew Dragon crew capsule suffered a massive malfunction, causing it to instantly explode just a few seconds into the test. The Dragon Crew capsule was thought to be ready for a July manned flight to the International Space Station, but that timeline is now likely to be modified. A grainy video alleged to show the incident has been circulating the web, but its veracity cannot be confirmed as SpaceX has refused to comment on it or even acknowledge that an explosion even happened.

Following the incident, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that neither SpaceX nor NASA will be deterred from their mutual goal of getting the next generation of manned rockets off the ground:

NASA and SpaceX teams are assessing the anomaly that occurred today during a part of the Dragon Super Draco Static Fire Test at SpaceX Landing Zone 1 in Florida. This is why we test. We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our Commercial Crew Program.

Spaceflight is a dangerous endeavor. To date, more than 20 astronauts have lost their as a result of spacecraft testing or spaceflight missions. NASA lost two seven-member space crews in the 1986 mid-launch explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the atmospheric disintegration of Space Shuttle Columbia.

Debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Debris from the break up of Space Shuttle Columbia.

Anyone who steps aboard a spaceship strapped to an enormous rocket does so with the knowledge that the largest part of them that investigators will find among the burnt, mangled wreckage will likely be a toe, and the soon-to-be crews of the SpaceX Dragon Crew are no different. Can Musk and SpaceX survive their first fatal accident? Will they even make it that far if these test “anomalies” continue?