In preparation for NASA's plan of sending astronauts to space aboard private space taxis, the agency collaborated with SpaceX and Boeing in running several parachute tests. These tests are necessary to find critical details on the re-entry phase. The tests serve as another breakthrough in the renewed interest in sending American astronauts back into space.
NASA’s astronauts used a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that took off from Kazakhstan in reaching the International Space Station. When the astronauts get back in 2019, the agency’s Commercial Crew Program will be replacing those Russian Soyuz flights. The new program will launch the private space taxis at Florida, from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center.
The test flights for the space taxis may happen later this year but technical considerations and funding delayed the launch date for a few years. NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.6 billion contract in 2014 for the Commercial Crew Program’s present phase. It concluded its 14th overall parachute test on the Dragon spacecraft’s crewed version on March 4.
In this test, the parachutes demonstrate working during abnormal descent. In the coming weeks, there will be more tests to run according to NASA. February this year, Boeing also conducted its initial reliability test. This test replicated a parachute landing using the company’s CST-100 Starliner.
In 2014, the company also gained from NASA a $4.6 billion contract to perform parachute and reliability tests to prepare the Starliner for flying into space. Kennedy Space Center’s lead engineer, Mark Biesack said that the parachutes are tested at a number of different normal entry conditions and ascent abort conditions, as well as contingencies.
SpaceX also conducted a parachute test earlier in March. This involved a Lockheed Martin C-130 aircraft that launched a test vehicle meant to show similar maximum speeds that Dragon spacecraft would experience upon re-entry. In the parachute test, the C-130 aircraft dropped the test vehicle from an altitude of 7,600 meters or 25,000 feet.
The test happened in Southern California over the Mojave Desert. SpaceX’s test showed an abnormal situation where it deployed just a single one of the drogue chutes. It also intentionally skipped a deployment stage that happened on one of the main parachutes. The test results showed proven safe landing when similar contingency scenario occurs.
By fall this year, both Boeing and SpaceX plan to complete the parachute qualification testing. NASA’s Orion program meant to send astronauts to the moon or somewhere distant into the solar system will be wrapping up its parachute testing as well. According to NASA officials, the Orion spacecraft testing reduced the necessity for development parachute tests by commercial companies.