SpaceX trumpets progress on commercial crew parachute testing

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WASHINGTON — SpaceX said Nov. 3 that it has now carried out 13 consecutive successful tests of a new parachute design for its Crew Dragon spacecraft after overcoming initial problems with it.

In a tweet, SpaceX posted video of the latest test of the “Mark 3” parachutes it is developing in cooperation with Airborne Systems. The latest test “demonstrated the parachute system’s ability to land the spacecraft safely in the unlikely event that one of the four main parachutes fails,” the company said.

A SpaceX spokesperson said Nov. 3 that test in the video took place Oct. 31. It was the first time that the company tested three Mark 3 parachutes simultaneously, with the previous 12 successful tests each involving a single parachute.

SpaceX announced last month it was working on the new Mark 3 parachute design, intended to provide higher margins of safety than the earlier Mark 2 design. “We think the Mark 2 parachutes are safe, but the Mark 3 parachutes are possibly 10 times safer,” Elon Musk, chief executive and founder of SpaceX, said at an Oct. 10 event at the company’s Hawthorne, California, headquarters with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “I think that the Mark 3 parachutes, in my opinion, are the best parachutes ever, by a lot.”

Testing of those new parachutes, though, did not start well, SpaceX acknowledged. The company said the latest test was the 15th for the Mark 3 parachutes. The first two tests, each involving a single parachute, were not successful.

Those first two tests, a company spokesperson said, involved loads much higher than what the parachute would see in normal operation. “As a result, these two development tests resulted in failures that were addressed with design reinforcements that have proven robust in subsequent testing.”

SpaceX said it worked with Airborne Systems and “rapidly iterated” on the Mark 3 parachute design, carrying out 12 single-parachute tests over seven days prior to the three-parachute test.

Those tests appear to be the ones that Kathy Lueders, NASA commercial crew program manager, was referring to in comments at an Oct. 30 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee. “We’ve been working through different chute testing. SpaceX guys did 12 chute tests in week as we’re working to perfecting the Mark 3 design,” she said in a brief discussion of parachute work.

“We’re continuing to work with them on what that schedule is and finalizing that,” she added. “We’ll be looking at understanding final test results as we move into the December timeframe.”

Beyond those comments there was little discussion at the committee meeting on parachute testing despite the emphasis NASA was placing on that part of SpaceX’s commercial crew work. “The highest priority has been the parachutes,” Bridenstine said during his Oct. 10 visit to SpaceX. “Elon has told me, and he’s showed me, that that’s where their priority is. They’re putting as much resources and manpower as they can to getting those parachutes ready.”

There had been industry rumors that at least one recent SpaceX parachute test had failed, which the company’s comments about the unsuccessful first two Mark 3 tests appear to confirm. Neither SpaceX nor NASA would comment on the status of parachute testing last month beyond confirming that Mark 3 parachute testing was underway.

SpaceX said it would continue to work with Airborne on “a rapid cadence of testing,” seeking to qualify the Mark 3 parachutes by the end of the year, but did not disclose a target in terms of number of tests planned.

“We need to get with the Mark 3 now consistent, repeatable performance,” Bridenstine said at SpaceX. “We could see as many as 10 drop tests between now and the end of the year.” It wasn’t clear if those 10 tests would involve the complete system, which uses four parachutes, or the testing of a smaller number of parachutes as in the recent series of tests. He said more tests might be needed if the performance of the Mark 3 parachutes was significantly different from the earlier Mark 2 design.

“We’re just going full tilt on the Mark 3 parachutes,” Musk said at the event with Bridenstine. “People think that parachutes look easy, but they are definitely not easy.”