SpaceX is closing out this year with an achievement that should actually help it keep on the track to fly astronauts on board one of its spacecraft next year. The Elon Musk-led space company just finished its tenth consecutive successful parachute system test yesterday, which is an important safety system milestone that should be a good indication that the latest design is just about ready for the use with astronauts on board.
The parachute system is what’s used to slow the descent of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon commercial astronaut spacecraft on its return trip to the Earth, once it enters the atmosphere. The current design is the third major iteration of SpaceX’s parachute for the Crew Dragon, featuring the upgraded materials and improved stitching for the best possible reliability and durability during flight.
Earlier this year, at an event which is hosted at SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, Calif., Musk told media and fans in the attendance that the Mark 3 parachute system would need at least 10 successful tests in a row before the company would feel confident about using it for actual crewed flights. At the time, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine also said he believed that SpaceX could achieve all 10 before the year was out, and now it has indeed hit that mark.
Currently, SpaceX plans to fly its next major step towards the crewed flight on January 11: That’s the current target for its “in-flight abort test,” which is a required launch that will test the emergency safeguard system that can be triggered mid-launch to carry the crew away from the launch vehicle and to safety in case of anything which is going wrong that might potentially put them in danger.
Do you know that SANTA FE, N.M. — SpaceX said Dec. 23 that it has completed the tenth successful consecutive test of the new parachute design for its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is a milestone that NASA previously said was critical before the agency that would allow astronauts to fly on the vehicle?
The company said in a tweet that the successful test took place on Dec. 22, making the tenth consecutive multi-parachute test of this design the company calls Mark 3. That test, the company said, brings it “one step closer to the safe launching and landing NASA astronauts.”
SpaceX moved to the Mark 3 design in the fall after the problems with the Mark 2 design, which includes a failed test in April. “We think the Mark 2 parachutes are safe, but the Mark 3 parachutes are possibly 10 times safer,” Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, said at an Oct. 10 event with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the company’s Hawthorne, California, headquarters. “I think that the Mark 3 parachutes, in my opinion, are the best parachutes ever, by a lot.”
The company started with a series of single-parachute tests, which includes performing 12 such tests over a week in October. “We’ve been working through different chute testing. SpaceX guys did 12 chute tests in a week as we’re working to perfecting the Mark 3 design,” Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee in late October.
Bridenstine said at the October event with Musk that the agency and SpaceX would review the performance of the Mark 3 parachutes after completing 10 tests. “We are committed as a team, SpaceX and NASA, to the Mark 3 parachute, which is superior to the Mark 2,” he said. “We need to get with the Mark 3 now consistent, repeatable performance.”
“Given where we are and the resources being deployed on that particular effort, we talked even today that we could see as many as 10 drop tests between now and the end of the year,” he said then. Those tests, he said, would be compared to the earlier Mark 2 parachutes, possibly using earlier Mark 2 tests to qualify the Mark 3 parachutes “as long as we see the consistent, repeatable performance.”
“Depending on how the next 10 drop tests go, we will know how many more drop tests we will need,” Bridenstine said.
The agency hasn’t recently commented on how the parachute tests will feed into decisions about approving those parachutes for use on the Demo-2 crewed test flight of the spacecraft, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board. However, Bridenstine tweeted “Great news!” in response to SpaceX’s announcement of the latest parachute test.
“Absolutely amazing!” responded Hurley. He said he and Behnken “can’t thank you all enough for your tireless efforts to get us ready to fly Demo-2.”