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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon suffered more damage than expected on recent mission

SpaceX has revealed that it found more damage than it expected on the heat shield of its Crew Dragon spacecraft following a recent mission that saw the first astronaut use of the vehicle.

Speaking at a press conference this week about plans for the first operational launch of the Crew Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS) at the end of October, Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said his team found “a little bit more erosion than we wanted to see” on one of the spacecraft’s tiles.

The spacecraft underwent an inspection after its return in early August 2020 following the successful completion of SpaceX’s historic Demo-2 mission that transported NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS.

The damage to the Crew Dragon occurred during its homecoming journey as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. As expected, the colossal speed of entry caused the temperature of the underside of the spacecraft to rise dramatically. Specially designed heat-resistant tiles protect the integrity of the spacecraft and any crew inside, but damage beyond a certain level could prove disastrous.

“We saw some flow phenomenon that we really didn’t expect, and we saw erosion to be deeper than we anticipated,” Koenigsmann said in comments reported by SpaceNews.

But Koenigsmann was keen to note that the Crew Dragon damage was limited to a very small part of the heat shield, and at no point were Hurley and Behnken in any danger.

He added that the issue can be resolved by using a more erosion-resistant material for the tiles located around the bolts that connect the Crew Dragon to a trunk section that’s jettisoned shortly before the spacecraft re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

The team is also working on resolving an issue with the spacecraft’s parachute deployment to ensure they open at precisely the right moment as the spacecraft comes closer to the Earth’s surface. While the parachutes opened at an acceptable altitude in the final stages of the Demo-2 mission, SpaceX said the deployment was a little lower than expected. To fix the problem, a new instrument will be fitted that will measure the altitude more accurately.

Once all of the outstanding issues have been satisfactorily addressed, NASA is expected to certify the spacecraft, clearing the way for the highly anticipated Crew-1 mission on October 31.

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Trevor Mogg
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