SpaceX was supposed to be prepping for a crewed launch of its Dragon II capsule right now, but things have taken an unfortunate turn for the private spaceflight firm. A Dragon spacecraft exploded last month during an engine test, and now NASA’s director of human spaceflight tells Congress that SpaceX also experienced an issue with its parachutes during a separate test.
NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier explained the previously unpublicized failure in response to questioning from Alabama Representative Mo Brooks. Gerstenmaier explained the test was what’s known as a “single-out,” which simulates a partial failure of the parachute system. SpaceX proactively failed one of the Dragon’s four chutes, allowing the other three to operate normally.
The test most likely occurred last month at Delamar Dry Lake in Nevada where SpaceX was conducting drop tests to gather data on the efficacy of its parachute system. According to Gerstenmaier, the remaining three chutes on the spacecraft “did not operate properly.” He did not elaborate on how exactly they failed, but did note the spacecraft was “damaged upon impact with the ground.” That could be a polite way to say it’s in pieces — we just don’t know.
SpaceX and NASA are still evaluating the cause of the parachute failure, but the good news is there’s a lot of data available to the team. It’s possible the issue is due to the test setup or conditions on the aircraft that dropped it. However, it might also point to a problem with SpaceX’s design. That would be the worst case scenario as it could lead to additional delays as the company validates and implements design changes.
SpaceX would probably prefer not to use parachutes at all. The Dragon II’s SuperDraco engines are technically capable of propulsive landings. However, NASA won’t let SpaceX do that with crewed missions. There’s also the issue of whether the SuperDraco engines will explode. NASA and SpaceX are still investigating the “anomaly” from last month’s launch abort test during which the spacecraft exploded on the test platform.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has been plagued with delays. Both Boeing and SpaceX have run into issues, but it looked like SpaceX would be ready to fly astronauts to the International Space Station this summer until recently. Boeing is still scheduled to launch a mission later this year after experiencing a delay thanks to last year’s CST-100 fuel leak. NASA is running out of Soyuz seats, so hopefully one of these firms can get their vehicle ready for use this year.
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