The smoke was visible for miles.
The day, April 20, was sunny on the Florida coast, with few clouds. The plumes, thick and glowing orange, rose over the horizon and crawled across the sky. Beachgoers stopped to stare. A photographer for Florida Today, on assignment to cover a surf festival, turned the lens away from the waves and snapped some pictures.
The ashy clouds were coming from Cape Canaveral. The only time you want to see smoke wafting from that vicinity, the site of historic space launches, is after a successful liftoff—and there were no rockets in the sky that day.
The smoke turned out to be from a failed test of a SpaceX spacecraft designed to carry humans to orbit. Strapped to a test stand so it couldn’t fly away, the capsule had ignited its engines. “The initial tests completed successfully, but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand,” SpaceX said in a statement at the time.
The smoke suggested an outcome more serious than an “anomaly”—like a full-blown explosion. But SpaceX wouldn’t say anything else.
A day later, a grainy video, which looked like a recording of a screen, appeared on Twitter. The footage showed what appeared to be the SpaceX capsule, known as Dragon, on the test stand.
For about 10 seconds, everything is still. And then, suddenly, there’s an explosion, and the whole thing is engulfed in flames. Off camera, people exclaim in shock and swear. (No one was near the capsule, so there were no injuries.)
SpaceX declined to verify the authenticity of the video. But this week, a NASA contractor that supports launch operations in Florida sent an internal email warning its employees that they can be fired if they share the video. The message, reported by the Orlando Sentinel, confirmed that the footage was real.
More than a week after the explosion, SpaceX remains silent about the incident. At this moment, even an “anomaly” in its test capsule should rattle the engineers, astronauts, and administrators invested in Dragon’s success. SpaceX was well on its way to launching American astronauts into space, a historic first in U.S. spaceflight history.
“Unless something goes wrong, I would think that we’ll be flying hopefully this year, this summer,” Elon Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, said last month.
Barely two months ago, the same capsule was docked to the International Space Station, circling Earth. It arrived without people—this was only its first flight, after all—but plenty of fresh supplies, and the astronauts on the station opened the hatches and floated in. Several days later, the Dragon returned to Earth and parachuted to the Atlantic Ocean, ready for more tests, in preparation for a flight with people on board.
No astronauts have launched from American soil since 2011, in the final flight of the space-shuttle program, an illustrious but expensive 30-year effort. In the years since, the United States has relied on its former space rival, Russia, to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This arrangement was never meant to be NASA’s only option, or to last as long as it has. The George W. Bush administration directed NASA to develop a transportation system to replace the shuttles, but the Obama administration canceled the project, citing ballooning budgets and schedule delays.
So instead of making its own systems, NASA hired someone else to do it. In 2014, the agency awarded billion-dollar contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to build astronaut-transportation systems. NASA would pay to use them, but at a significantly lower rate than the Russians charge.
At the start of this year, SpaceX had made the most progress. Spectators and press flocked to Florida for the Dragon’s first flight in March. A pair of NASA astronauts, already in training for the crewed mission, chatted with reporters, eager to suit up and fly. “I’m a little emotionally exhausted,” Musk told reporters soon after the successful launch. “Because that was super stressful. But it worked—so far.” The company was on a high.
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Source: The Atlantic