Companies test spacecraft parachutes as first Commercial Crew flights near
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which will employ private contractors to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, has taken a step closer to crewed flights as the two prime contractors conduct the latest round of tests of their spacecraft parachute systems.
The two prime contractors are The Boeing Company with its CST-100 Starliner, and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (better known as SpaceX) with its Crew Dragon capsule. Both hope to send astronauts into space as early as 2019, but their first uncrewed tests could happen before the end of 2018.
Starliner parachute tests
The latest round of Boeing’s Starliner parachute tests occurred in February 2018 when a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft carried a dart-shaped test bed module and released it over Yuma, Arizona, testing the flight drogue and main parachute system. Two more tests are planned with the dart module.
After that, NASA said Boeing plans to conduct three reliability tests using a high-fidelity capsule simulator, which will precisely mimic the CST-100’s mass and aerodynamics. This will be accomplished using a helium balloon to lift the simulator to an altitude of over 30,000 feet (9,100 meters) and release it to evaluate parachute deployments as well as overall system performance.
In May 2018, Boeing will conduct the third of five scheduled tests using the same kind of helium balloon. The spacecraft will be lifted high over the desert over New Mexico and dropped from a height of 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). That test’s sequence of chute deployment will be, first, three pilot chutes, then two drogue and three main chutes, NASA said.
Various tests are performed to simulate different deployment speeds and the effects of different weight demands. This information is then entered into computer models in order to predict parachute performance in different situations and to evaluate consistency from one test to the next.
SpaceX tests off-nominal deployments
The most recent SpaceX parachute test for its Crew Dragon spacecraft was conducted on March 4, 2018. A Lockheed C-130 aircraft carried the test vehicle to an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) and dropped the test vehicle.
In order to simulate an off-nominal situation, only one of the two drogue chutes deployed. Then a deployment stage was skipped on one of the four main parachutes. According to NASA, the objective of the test was to prove that the capsule could make a safe landing under such circumstances.
In the next round of Crew Dragon parachute tests, a Lockheed C-130 will again drop the test vehicle from an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters), but in a different off-nominal configuration. It will involve skipping the deployment of one drogue chute while one main chute will fail to deploy.
NASA said the goal of these off-nominal tests is to confirm that astronauts can survive landings when even if one or more parachutes fail.
“We test the parachutes at many different conditions for nominal entry, ascent abort conditions including a pad abort, and for contingencies, so that we know the chutes can safely deploy in flight and handle the loads,” NASA engineer Mark Biesack, who oversees parachute testing for the Commercial Crew Program, said in an agency news release.
Kathy Launders, who runs the Commercial Crew Program at Kennedy Space Center, said SpaceX and Boeing are “making great strides” in their parachute test program and the data they are collecting is critical to insure their respective systems work as designed.
“NASA is proud of their commitment to safely fly our crew members to the International Space Station and return them home safely,” Launders said.
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.