- SpaceX discovered an unexpected erosion on the heat shield of its Crew Dragon spacecraft after its first mission as an astronaut.
- A SpaceX executive said crew members – NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley – have never been in danger.
- But as a precaution, SpaceX updated the heat shield ahead of its next manned launch in October.
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SpaceX discovered unexpected damage to a portion of its Crew Dragon space capsule after the ship carried its first astronauts this summer, officials said Tuesday.
The Demo-2 mission took NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on May 30. The two men stayed there for two months, then withstood a fiery fall through Earth̵
But after the company recovered and studied the roasted space capsule closely, examiners spotted something unusual: a profound erosion on Crew Dragon’s heat shield.
That thermal protection system is a collection of heat-resistant tiles that line the spaceship’s vulnerable belly. It protects the crew dragon by deflecting and absorbing heat that can reach 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit as the space capsule plunges into the atmosphere and creates superheated plasma upon its return to Earth.
SpaceX expected to find some wear, but not that much.
“We found, on a tile, a little more erosion than we wanted to see,” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of construction and flight reliability, told reporters during a briefing Tuesday.
Koenigsmann said the affected part of the heat shield is close to the “tension bonds” that connect the Crew Dragon to its large cylindrical trunk. (The trunk helps propel the spacecraft into orbit, but is thrown away before the spacecraft begins reentry.) One of the four areas surrounding those tension bonds was deeply consumed by the red-hot plasma as Behnken and Hurley returned to Earth. .
However, the spaceship and its crew returned home safe and sound despite the unexpected problem.
“At all times the astronauts were safe and the vehicle was running perfectly,” Koenigsmann said.
NASA and SpaceX have renewed the heat shield for the next astronaut mission
Before Behnken and Hurley returned to Earth, SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk said reentry was the part of the mission he cared about the most.
NASA examined the heat shield for damage before the return flight, while the Crew Dragon capsule was still anchored to the space station. During its two months attached to the orbiting lab, small bits of space debris may have damaged the ship’s heat shield. The inspection relied on a robotic arm on the space station and some onboard cameras, but found no problems.
It was only after Behnken and Hurley were safely back to Earth that SpaceX discovered the weak spot in its heat shield.
But these are the kinds of problems Behnken and Hurley’s flight were supposed to find and solve.
While theirs was considered a demonstration mission, the Crew Dragon is ready to transport a crew on its first routine mission, called Crew-1. NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi are scheduled to launch aboard Crew Dragon on October 31.
NASA and SpaceX already reinforced the vulnerable portion of the heat shield prior to that flight, Koenigsmann said.
“We went in and changed a lot of materials to better materials,” Steve Stich, the program manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which oversees the SpaceX astronaut missions, told reporters. “We have improved the area between these tiles.”
NASA tested five samples of the new tile in a simulated environment that mimics reentry: a wind tunnel at its Ames Research Center in California.
“I am confident that we have solved this particular problem very well,” Koenigsmann said. “Everything has been tested and is ready for the next mission.”
It’s unclear why excessive heat shield erosion didn’t manifest in the previous demo mission, an unmanned test flight in which Crew Dragon was launched, docked at the space station, and returned to Earth with no human passengers. Koenigsmann speculated that the capsule may not have encountered the problem because it was lighter and had a slightly different trajectory on that mission.
“At the end of the day, it’s great that we found him on this ride,” he said. “This was by no means a dangerous situation. This is something we observed and then fundamentally changed to make sure nothing bad will ever happen.”