NASA still tracking towards mid-to-late May SpaceX crew launch despite parachute mishap

NASA provided an official update about the status of its Commercial Crew program, the project it’s working on with partners SpaceX and Boeing to return astronaut launch capabilities to American soil via private launch partners. This week, SpaceX encountered an issue while testing the parachute system that will be used on its Crew Dragon spacecraft, but a new update from NASA indicates the the previously stated mid-to-late May window for its first ever launch with astronauts on board is still on the calendar.

The incident occurred on March 24, and SpaceX provided a statement detailing what happened at the time. Here’s their full statement:

During a planned parachute drop test today, the test article suspended underneath the helicopter became unstable. Out of an abundance of caution and to keep the helicopter crew safe, the pilot pulled the emergency release. As the helicopter was not yet at target conditions, the test article was not armed, and as such, the parachute system did not initiate the parachute deployment sequence. While the test article was lost, this was not a failure of the parachute system and most importantly no one was injured. NASA and SpaceX are working together to determine the testing plan going forward in advance of Crew Dragon’s second demonstration mission.

Per SpaceX, and NASA’s blog on Friday, the loss of the “spacecraft-like” testing device that was suspended underneath the helicopter does not reflect any problem on the part of the parachute system itself. NASA included a closing paragraph in its update that noted it’s “looking at the parachute testing plan now and all the data we already have to determine next steps,” but it does conclude that it’s doing so in the interest of “flying the upcoming Demo-2 flight test in the mid-to-late May timeframe.”

Meanwhile, SpaceX also encountered an early engine cut-off issue during its most recent Starlink launch, which flew using a Falcon 9 rocket on March 18. NASA confirmed that it is participating in an investigation into what went wrong with that engine issue (which, it should be noted, didn’t actually affect the successful outcome of the launch itself).

It’s possible that either of these could impact the plans for the Demo-2 mission, but right now, things still appear to be on track. NASA is also taking measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and enforcing remote work policies where applicable, but this also hasn’t had an effect on the Commercial Crew timelines to date.