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SpaceX parachute test didn’t go smoothly and may threaten NASA launch

Published Mar 26th, 2020 12:16AM EDT
spacex test failure
Image: Terry Renna/AP/REX/Shutterstock

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  • SpaceX attempted to test its Crew Dragon parachute system but the test was cut short after the dummy object with the parachutes installed on it became unstable during ascent. 
  • The helicopter crew hauling the object had to release it, destroying it in the process. The test was obviously not completed as intended. 
  • NASA and SpaceX will now have to decide how to proceed and possibly reschedule the test for a later date. 
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

An issue with a parachute during a test by SpaceX has thrown the timeline of the company’s first crewed mission into jeopardy. The test, which was designed to ensure the parachute system of the Crew Dragon spacecraft can bring the spacecraft to a safe, soft landing, ended earlier than expected when the helicopter crew conducting the test had to abort early.

The long race between SpaceX and Boeing to be the first company to deliver a crew-capable spacecraft to NASA appeared to be all but over after NASA announced a date for the first crewed mission for its Crew Dragon spacecraft. The mission, which will see a pair of NASA astronauts sent to the International Space Station, was originally slated for a launch as early as May.

SpaceX tests its parachutes by hauling a dummy object equipped with the chutes high into the sky and dropping it, triggering the chutes, and observing the result. Having conducted many such tests in the past, it’s downright routine for the company at this point, but unfortunately, something went awry this time around.

As SpaceNews reports, the dummy object “became unstable” as the helicopter began hauling it skyward. An unstable helicopter is a recipe for disaster, so the pilot of the aircraft released the object before it was in position for the test. The parachutes never deployed, and SpaceX says that’s because the dummy object wasn’t actually armed and ready to deploy.

The dummy object was destroyed in the fall, but the crew of the helicopter remained unharmed and nobody on the ground was injured. SpaceX emphasized that the failure was due to issues with the test itself, not a shortcoming with the parachute system.

The test was part of NASA’s requirements it set forth in order to ensure the safety of its astronauts being flown on the first manned Crew Dragon trip. Multiple tests have to be conducted before NASA gives the all-clear, and it’s unclear at this point how many more tests of the parachute system were left when this incident occurred.

In a statement, SpaceX said it’s working with NASA to figure out how to proceed. The decision will have to be made whether the scrubbed test will have to be retried, and if so, when that might happen. For now, NASA hasn’t made any changes to its launch forecast based on this event.

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