One-out parachute test doesn’t crush Blue Origin’s hopes
Landing with a failed parachute is not a condition a company would normally want their spacecraft to encounter, but that was exactly the scenario Blue Origin planned for the fourth test flight of their New Shepard vehicle last month. After a month of analysis, Blue Origin’s founder, Jeff Bezos, gave the word in an e-mail update that the test was a success.
Blue Origin intentionally hobbled the spacecraft’s landing system for the June 19, 2016, flight by disabling one of the vehicle’s three descent parachutes in order to determine the impact—literally—on New Shepard should such an off-nominal landing occur.
In a nominal landing, the craft descends at 16 mph (25.75 km/h) prior to firing the capsule’s retrorocket when it’s a few feet above the ground. Beyond creating a large dust cloud, the retrorocket slows the descent to a scant 3 mph (4.83 km/h), with the remaining energy from the impact being absorbed by an 8-segment ring of crushable aluminum honeycomb mounted on the bottom of the craft.
The honeycomb material is approximately 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) high and is designed to withstand enough force to collapse down to less than 1 inch (2.54 centimeters), providing a constant deceleration while doing so.
According to Bezos, even with one parachute failed, “the capsule was descending at 23 mph before firing its retrorocket. The retrorocket took out most of that velocity, and the crushable ring did the rest of the job.”
Bezos further stated that even in this failure mode, “the crushable barely crushed.” The ring only compressing by 0.5 inches (1.27 centimeters) throughout nearly the entirety of its structure.
“We’ve designed the capsule to ensure astronaut safety not just for a failure of one parachute, but even for a failure of two parachutes,” Bezos said of Blue Origin’s goal for crew safety, “In addition to the retrorocket system and the crushable ring, there is an energy absorbing mechanism mounted underneath each seat.”
Video courtesy of Blue Origin
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.