COLORADO SPRINGS — Technicians found a significant amount of water inside the latest Dragon capsule to land in the Pacific after a mission to the International Space Station, raising concerns the commercial cargo capsule leaked after splashdown.
The quantity of seawater intrusion and the source is unclear, said Dan Hartman, ’s deputy ISS program manager. All of the science equipment and other hardware in the Dragon capsule is in good shape, he said during a May 21 briefing.
Recovery of the capsule after it splashed down May 18 took 11 hr., apparently longer than usual, and may have been associated with the problem. This Dragon is an upgraded version, with more carrying capacity and new freezers for samples.
The downmass payload of just more than 3,500 lb.of equipment, including 1,600 lb. of science equipment and perishable specimens, was intact, Hartman said. The research gear and samples were flown from the Los Angeles area to Houston and greeted by ISS officials late May 20, then distributed to principal investigators by early May 21.
Witnesses at the port observed significant water as the cold storage containers brought back from the ISS were removed, and there was a report the capsule’s internal humidity sensors tripped, according to an industry source.
The capsule itself will be transported by truck to SpaceX proving grounds in McGregor, Texas, by late this week for further troubleshooting, Hartman said.
"Across the board, I know of no damage to hardware," Hartman said. "Obviously, SpaceX will be very interested in getting Dragon back to McGregor."
Initially, there was speculation the water source could have been one of several containment bags of water that NASA was returning on Dragon as part of its investigation into the July 16 water leak into the helmet of a U.S. spacesuit worn by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano. Bags containing several gallons of water from the ISS airlock were returned to Earth for analysis to help conclude the investigation that has forced a suspension of all but emergency U.S. spacewalks.
However, the NASA water bags were accounted for, eliminating them as the source of the water found in Dragon, Hartman said.
Aside from a little space inside Russia’s Soyuz crew vehicles, the Dragon is the only way scientists and engineers have to recover scientific samples and hardware for analysis on the ground. A NASA official said the capsule’s scientific samples appear to be intact, but it remained to be seen if there was water damage to the other payloads in the spacecraft.
"The science samples returned to Earth are critical to improving our knowledge of how space affects humans who live and work there for long durations," said William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, after the landing, which came at 3:05 p.m. EDT May 18, about 350 mi. west of Baja, Calif.
The landing concluded the third SpaceX commercial mission to and from the space station. Going up, it carried almost 5,000 lb. of supplies.
The company had no immediate comment on the anomaly.
Hartman said it was too early to speculate on whether the intrusion would affect future Dragon missions. The company plans to launch the fourth of its round-trip resupply missions to the station in August or early September under the terms of its $1.6 billion, 12-flight agreement with NASA reached in late 2008. The NASA contract extends through 2016.
"It depends on what we find," Hartman said of future mission plans. "I’m sure that whatever they find, they will jump on real quick."