SpaceX Tests Parachutes That Will Bring Astronauts Back To Earth

Today, NASA released footage from one of SpaceX’s final certification tests required under the Commercial Crew Program. The drop test, performed in Coolidge, Arizona, involved the four large parachutes that are part of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon landing system.

For the drop test, the parachute assembly was carried thousands of feet above the ground on board a C-130 cargo aircraft. A weight was used in place of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, and the parachutes were rigged to deploy as they would when Crew Dragon returns astronauts from the International Space Station.

In the video, a NASA representative states that “tests like this allow engineers to assess the reliability of flight-like hardware.”

This particular drop test did not include Crew Dragon’s drogue parachutes, which SpaceX will ultimately use in its full landing system design. Drogue chutes will be deployed before the 4 main chutes in order to slow and stabilize the capsule as it descends.

An earlier parachute drop test was performed in December of 2013, before the necessary human-rated modifications were made to create Crew Dragon. In the 2013 drop test, a helicopter carried the Dragon capsule and its parachute system to an altitude of 8,000 feet above Morro Bay, California and dropped it into the Pacific Ocean. At the time, the parachute system included 2 drogue parachutes and 3 main parachutes.

Over 2 years later, SpaceX has modified the original Dragon design to create the human-rated Crew Dragon version, which will use drogue parachutes and 4 main parachutes.

Initially, SpaceX will use Crew Dragon and its parachute system to splash down the crew safely in the ocean, similar to the landing strategy used during the Apollo era.

Eventually, however, SpaceX plans to bring astronauts back to land with a propulsive strategy.

Back in November, SpaceX completed a hover test with Crew Dragon and its SuperDraco engines. The company has noted that a propulsive landing strategy is an important capability if you ever want to land humans on a planet without an ocean, like Mars. With Elon Musk at the SpaceX helm, a man who has often said his end goal is to get to Mars, this landing strategy is unsurprising.

In a blog post today, NASA stated that “later tests will grow progressively more realistic to simulate as much of the actual conditions and processes the system will see during an operational mission.”

SpaceX and Boeing, the other Commercial Crew Program contract winner, are working to perfect their human-rated spacecraft and relieve the U.S. reliance on Russia for rides to the International Space Station.

Assuming no anomalies in future tests, NASA hopes to have a reliable ride to the space station from a U.S. company by the end of 2017.