As NASA is preparing to send astronauts to space in private space taxis, the two leading US-based spacecraft manufacturers are already running multiple tests on space parachutes for the crucial re-entry phase.
Since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA’s astronauts have been using Russian Soyuz spacecraft launched from Kazakhstan to reach the International Space Station (ISS). If the tests are successful, the astronauts can be sent to space from the American soil again. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program intends to replace most of the Soyuz flights with the U.S. Company launching the expeditions from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Test flights may take place from late 2018.
Both SpaceX and Boeing received funding from NASA in 2014. SpaceX which obtained a fund of $2.6 billion from the space agency completed its 14th overall parachute test for its manned version of the Dragon spacecraft on March 4 of this year. For the parachute test, a Lockheed Martin C-130 aircraft lofted a vehicle that demonstrated the same maximum speeds as the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft would experience on re-entry. The aircraft dropped the vehicle from 25,000 feet over the Mojave Desert in Southern California.
The parachutes are tested to demonstrate how it will work during abnormal descent. They are also tested against different conditions for nominal entry, ascent abort conditions such as pad abort. Contingency scenarios such off-nominal, or abnormal situation, deployment of only one of the two chutes and the intentionally skipping of one of the four main parachutes to know if they can be safely deployed in flight and handle the loads, are also put to the test.
Boeing which had also received $4.6 billion from NASA in 2014 conducted its first reliability test In February simulating a parachute landing with its CST-100 Starliner. The company’s test flight used a long, dart-shaped test vehicle that was released over Yuma, Arizona by a C-17 aircraft. Boeing intends to utilize the dart module twice more for testing. Boeing’s will be conducting third of its five parachute system testing in May.
Both, SpaceX and Boeing plan to wrap up their parachute system qualification testing by the fall of this year. NASA’s Orion program which intends to send astronauts to the moon or far off place in the space is also almost done with the parachute testing for the spacecraft. With its own set of parachutes, NASA would be able to save much of its budget set apart for the space chutes.