CAPE CANAVERAL: SpaceX has suffered a serious setback in its effort to launch Nasa astronauts into orbit this year, with the fiery loss of its first crew capsule.

Over the weekend, the Dragon crew capsule that flew to the International Space Station last month was engulfed in smoke and flames on an engine test stand. SpaceX was testing the Dragon’s abort thrusters at Cape Canaveral, Florida, when Saturday’s accident occurred. The company said the test area was clear and no one was injured.

This Dragon was supposed to be reused in a launch abort test in June, with another capsule making the first flight with a crew of two as early as July.

The SuperDraco abort thrusters are crucial to protect astronauts in flight; they’re designed to fire in an emergency and pull the capsule safely away from the rocket.

Nasa said on Monday it’s too early to revise the target launch dates, given that the accident is still so fresh.

“This is why we test,” Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement over the weekend. “We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our commercial crew programme.”

The University of Southern California’s Garrett Reisman, a former Nasa astronaut who directed space operations for SpaceX until last year, said it was a “tough day ... not good” for SpaceX. “But thankfully no one got hurt and with everything we learn from this anomaly Crew Dragon will be a safer vehicle for all her future crews,” he tweeted.

Until Saturday, SpaceX was on a roll to resume crew launches from Florida. The March test flight, to the space station and back, went smoothly. The SuperDraco thrusters embedded in the sides of the capsule, however, were not used during the demo.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2019