NASA and SpaceX are investigating the parachute issue but see no major safety concerns

Enlarge / NASA Television of the Crew-2 landing shows three main parachutes deployed, with a fourth trailing behind.

NASA television

NASA and SpaceX officials say they are paying attention to a parachute issue with the Dragon spacecraft, but they don’t believe significant action will be needed to fix it.

Upon returning to Earth from orbit, the crew and the latest Cargo versions of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft use four main parachutes to slow the capsule before it hits the water. If a parachute fails, the spacecraft can still land safely.

During the first two crewed flights of the Dragon spacecraft in 2020 and 2021, all four parachutes nominally inflated. However, when the Crew-2 mission carrying four astronauts returned to Earth in November 2021, one of the four parachutes was delayed for 75 seconds before fully inflating. This had no effect on the spacecraft’s planned rate of descent as the extended parachute still provided some drag.

After that night landing, NASA and SpaceX conducted a quick but thorough review of the issue and determined that it posed no serious threat to future spaceflight. Two days later, the Crew-3 mission launched in another Crew Dragon spacecraft. This vehicle, nicknamed Endurancemust return to Earth in April 2022.

It happened again

On January 24, 2022, a Cargo Dragon spacecraft crashed after a month-long supply trip to the International Space Station. NASA said the non-televised landing was nominal, but two days ago Space News reported that one of the four parachutes had not deployed at the scheduled time. This time the parachute was 63 seconds late in inflating. Again, the spacecraft landed without damage.

On Friday, NASA’s chief for human spaceflight operations, Kathy Lueders, her commercial team leader, Steve Stich, and a senior SpaceX engineer, Bill Gerstenmaier, all joined a teleconference with reporters to explain what’s going on. had happened, what engineers were doing about it, and why NASA and SpaceX were confident in the safety of the Crew Dragon vehicle.

Lueders pointed out that in studying this matter, NASA did not convene any sort of formal accident review. “It’s just us evaluating and doing our normal work of verifying the material,” she said.

This analysis of parachutes and flight data is ongoing as SpaceX and NASA continue to work for an April 15 launch of the Crew-4 mission. The flight will use a new Dragon spacecraft, which is nearing completion at the company’s factory in Hawthorne. A second stage of the mission is also in its final version. The Falcon 9 first stage for Crew-4, which has flown three times previously, is already underway at the company’s launch facility in Florida.

Stich noted that Crew Dragon is the first human spacecraft to use four main parachutes, instead of three, on its return trip. NASA has seen delayed inflation of a parachute on some previous cargo flights and in tests, and this may simply be a feature of a four-parachute system. What NASA and SpaceX engineers think is that three parachutes ingest air relatively quickly, but the fourth parachute is a bit “shaded” and lacks air. After the other parachutes fully inflate, this fourth parachute does too.

A learning opportunity

Gerstenmaier, a former NASA director who now oversees safety at SpaceX, stressed that this parachute analysis is not a flight safety issue but rather a learning exercise.

“It’s a great chance for us to learn,” he said. “I see this almost as a gift that we received on CRS-24. We’re going to be fortunate to now have two sets of data that we can play against each other to improve our models and improve our knowledge and actually make the system much safer for anyone using these parachutes in the future.”

Crew Dragon offers NASA the only US-based way to send its astronauts into space. The space agency funded a second supplier, Boeing, to develop the Starliner spacecraft for crewed flight. But Boeing has faced technical challenges and is unlikely to carry humans on a test flight until at least next year. But even if Starliner was flying and proving itself today, there would be no reason to cancel Dragon flights, NASA officials said.

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