Sometimes, when you fill a small metal capsule with rocket fuel, it will explode.
That’s what appears to have happened this past weekend when SpaceX attempted a static test of its Dragon 2 capsule. “Crew Dragon capsule explodes,” wrote Scientific American. Business Insider called it a “large explosion.” Quartz said that it “blew up.” There’s even a grainy video of the test that seems to show a fireball.
But SpaceX? The company called it an “anomaly.”
You’d never know what happened if you only read SpaceX’s prepared statement, which downplayed the apparent explosion as much as possible.
“Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand. Ensuring that our systems meet rigorous safety standards and detecting anomalies like this prior to flight are the main reason why we test. Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners.”
SpaceX isn’t the only space agency to use “anomaly” to describe a spacecraft glitch. There are several instances where NASA has used the word to characterize launch problems or spacecraft communication issues. But we haven’t found an instance where NASA said “anomaly” when it meant “explosion” — in that regard, SpaceX stands alone. When something blows up, NASA says so.
Perhaps the problem that led to an explosion was an “anomaly”; it would be confusing if it was expected. But the explosion itself? Calling it anything but is a disservice.
Keep It Vague
Hey, we get it. Spacecraft explosions conjure images of tragedy: death, wasted money, canceled research.
It makes sense for a leader in space technology to avoid that connotation. But if SpaceX insists on calling an explosion — one that was seemingly documented on video — an “anomaly,” then who’s to say when the company will clear the air, on this test or any future endeavor?
READ MORE: Smoke seen for miles as SpaceX Crew Dragon suffers ‘anomaly’ at Cape Canaveral during engine test fire [Florida Today]
More on the explosion: Update: Vid Appears to Show SpaceX Capsule Exploding During Test