- SpaceX detects unexpected corrosion in the Crew Dragon spaceship Heat shield After the first astronaut mission.
- A SpaceX executive said the crew – NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley – were never in danger.
- But as a precaution, SpaceX has updated its heat shield before its next crew launch in October.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Officials said on Tuesday that SpaceX discovered unexpected damage to part of its Crew Dragon space capsule after the ship carried astronauts this summer.
The Demo 2 The mission transported NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on May 30. The two men stayed there for two months, then encountered a fiery fall through Earth’s atmosphere, landing in the Gulf of Mexico on August 2.
But after the company had recovered and studied the roasted space capsule more closely, the inspectors discovered something unusual: deep wear on the Crew Dragon thermal shield.
This thermal protection system is a set of heat-resistant tiles that line the bottom of a vulnerable spaceship. 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 produces an extremely hot plasma upon its return to Earth.
SpaceX expected to find some wear, but not that much.
“We found, on a piece of tile, a little more wear than we wanted to see,” Hans Koenigsman, SpaceX’s vice president for building and aviation reliability, told reporters during a testimony on Tuesday.
Koenigsman said the damaged portion of the heat shield is close to the “tension relationships” that connect the Crew Dragon to its large, cylindrical torso. (The torso helps propel the spacecraft into orbit, but is thrown away before the spaceship begins to re-enter.) One of four areas surrounding these tension relationships have been deeply eroded by the burning plasma when Behnken and Hurley return to Earth.
However, the spaceship and its crew returned safely to their homes despite the unexpected problem.
“At all times the astronauts were safe and the craft was operating perfectly,” Koenigsman said.
NASA and SpaceX have renewed the heat shield for the next astronaut mission
Before Behnken and Hurley returned to Earth, Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and chief designer, said that the return was part of the mission that What he worries most about.
NASA scanned the heat shield for damage prior to this return flight, while the Crew Dragon capsule was still docked at the space station. During the two months attached to the orbiting laboratory, small bits of space debris could have damaged the ship’s heat shield. The examination relied on a robotic arm on the space station and some cameras on board, but no problems emerged.
Only after Behnken and Hurley returned safely to Earth did SpaceX discover the weak spot in its heat shield.
But these are the kinds of problems that Behnken and Hurley’s trip was supposed to find and solve.
While their mission was considered an experimental mission, the Crew Dragon is the next group to transport a crew on their first routine mission, called Crew-1. NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soishi Noguchi are slated to arrive. It launches aboard the Crew Dragon on October 31.
Koenigsman said NASA and SpaceX had already reinforced the weak portion of the heat shield prior to that trip.
“We have gone in and changed a lot of materials into better materials,” Steve Stitch, NASA’s Commercial Staff Program director that oversees the missions of SpaceX astronauts, told reporters on Tuesday. “We made the area between these tiles better.”
NASA tested five samples of the new tiles in a simulated environment that simulated entry – a wind tunnel at the Ames Research Center in California.
“I’m sure we’ve fixed this particular problem very well,” Koenigsman said. “Everything has been tested and is ready to go for the next mission.”
It is unclear why the excessive wear of the heat shield did not appear in the previous test mission, an unmanned test flight in which a Crew Dragon was launched, docked on the space station, and returned to Earth without human passengers. Koenigsman speculated that the capsule may not have tested the problem because it was lighter and had a slightly different course in that task.
“Ultimately, it’s so wonderful that we found her on this trip,” he said. “This was not an insecure situation at all. This is something we noticed and then basically changed to make sure nothing bad happened at all.”
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