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Dragon cargo capsule encounters water seepage

Posted: May 21, 2014

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo -- Sea water seeped into SpaceX's Dragon supply capsule when it parachuted into the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, the second such occurrence since the cargo carrier began flying to the International Space Station in 2012, but a NASA space station manager said Wednesday there is no indication the incident damaged any of the sensitive research samples stowed inside.

The Dragon spacecraft descends to a parachute-assisted touchdown Sunday. Photo credit: SpaceX
"SpaceX did occur a minor incursion that they saw upon opening the hatch," said Dan Hartman, NASA's deputy space station program manager. "That has not caused us any impacts that we know of."

Nevertheless, Hartman told Spaceflight Now that NASA would expect a briefing on the matter, including possible corrective actions, before clearing the next Dragon spacecraft for flight to the space station.

"We routinely get [data] from SpaceX," Hartman said. "On the booster and every aspect of the mission. We do lessons learned with them, they share information with us, so we'll be in lock step with them in this investigation."

A SpaceX spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The 12-foot-diameter Dragon supply ship descended into the Pacific Ocean about 300 miles west of Baja California on Sunday, wrapping up a 30-day mission to the International Space Station.

A recovery team retrieved the capsule from the ocean and hauled it to the Port of Long Beach in California, where it arrived Tuesday. SpaceX will transport the spacecraft to its test facility in Central Texas for post-flight inspections, including the probe into why water leaked into the gumdrop-shaped capsule.

Hartman said SpaceX has unloaded time-sensitive biological research samples and delivered them the NASA, who was responsible for distributing the material to scientists.

The rest of the more than 3,500 pounds of cargo returned to Earth aboard the Dragon is due to be handed over to NASA by Friday, Hartman said.

The hardware included spacesuit hardware and water samples to help engineers determine what caused water to fill the helment of astronaut Luca Parmitano during a spacewalk in July 2013.

In an interview Wednesday, Hartman said technicians initially thought the samples, which consisted of several gallons of water, were the culprit for the water discovered inside the spacecraft. But the bag was intact, Hartman said.

"When we started unloading cargo, we noticed our bag was intact," Hartman said. "They had some kind incursion through a port or a relief valve. They're off investigating it."

Hartman said the Dragon returned in rough seas, which may have contributed to the water spilling inside.

On SpaceX's first operational cargo resupply mission in October 2012, the Dragon spacecraft also took on water when it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, cutting off power to a GLACIER freezer containing blood and urine samples. NASA said the samples were not compromised by that event.

Two similar freezers on this Dragon mission did not lose power after splashdown, preserving the material inside.

SpaceX installed reinforced covers around the freezer on subsequent missions to prevent it from being inundated by sea water.

The Dragon mission that ended Sunday was SpaceX's third operational round-trip cargo flight to the space station under a 12-mission, $1.6 billion contract with NASA. SpaceX is the only cargo provider that can return significant hardware to Earth.

SpaceX is upgrading the Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts under NASA's commercial crew program. Crewed missions are planned to return to Earth on land.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.