NASA Commercial Crew Partner SpaceX Tests Dragon Parachute System

18 Comments
A Dragon spacecraft splashed down in Morro Bay during a parachute test in Dec. 2013. (Credit: NASA)

A Dragon spacecraft splashes down in Morro Bay during a parachute test in Dec. 2013. (Credit: NASA)

MORROW BAY, Calif. (NASA PR) — Engineers and safety specialists from NASA and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) gathered in Morro Bay, Calif., in late December to demonstrate how the company’s Dragon spacecraft’s parachute system would function in the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during ascent.

The test was part of an optional milestone under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative and approved by the agency in August. Through the Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX is one of NASA’s commercial partners working to develop a new generation of U.S. spacecraft and rockets capable of transporting humans to and from low-Earth orbit from American soil. NASA intends to use such commercial systems to fly U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The 12,000-pound test craft was lifted 8,000 feet above sea level by an Erickson Sky Crane helicopter and flown over the Pacific Ocean. Following Dragon’s release, two drogue parachutes were released from the top of the spacecraft to slow its decent, before the three main parachutes deployed. The craft splashed down and was quickly recovered by the Sky Crane and carried back to shore.

“The parachute test is essential for the commercial crew effort because it helps us better understand how SpaceX’s system performs as it safely returns crew,” said Jon Cowart, NASA Partner Integration deputy manager working with SpaceX. “Like all of our partners, SpaceX continues to provide innovative solutions based on NASA’s lessons learned that could make spaceflight safer.”

During a normal spacecraft landing, the parachutes will be aided by the Dragon’s SuperDraco thrusters to provide a soft controlled landing. This redundancy on both the parachutes and thrusters is designed to ensure safe landings for crews.

“SpaceX is working diligently to make the Dragon spacecraft the safest vehicle ever flown,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. “The parachute system is an integral part of Dragon’s ability to provide a safe landing for nominal and abort conditions — with this successful test we are well-positioned to execute a full end-to-end test of the launch escape system later this year.”

The parachute test puts SpaceX a step closer to launch abort system tests. The company currently is manufacturing the spacecraft and rocket to be used for these flight tests.

SpaceX is on track to complete all 15 of its CCiCap milestones in 2014. All of NASA’s industry partners, including SpaceX, continue to meet their established milestones in developing commercial crew transportation capabilities.

For more information about NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and its aerospace industry partners, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/commercialcrew

SpaceX CCiCAP Milestone Status
Award Period: August 2012 – August 2014
Milestones: 15
Completed: 11
Total: $460 Million

No.
Description Original Date Status Amount
1 CCiCap Kickoff Meeting. SpaceX will hold a kickoff meeting at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA, or a nearby facility to review the current state of existing hardware, processes and designs, describe plans for CCiCap program execution during both the base period and the optional period and lay the groundwork for a successful partnership between NASA and SpaceX. August 2012 Complete $40
Million
2 Financial and Business Review. SpaceX will hold a financial and business review to accomplish verification of financial ability to meet NASA’s stated goals for the CCiCap program by providing NASA insight into SpaceX finances. August 2012
Complete $20 Million
3 Integrated System Requirements Review (ISRR). SpaceX will hold an integrated System Requirements Review (ISRR) to examine the functional and performance requirements defined for the entire CTS for the Commercial Crew Program design reference mission per section 3.1 of CCT-DRM-1110, as well as to evaluate the interpretation and applicability of each requirement. October 2012 Complete $50 Million
4 Ground Systems and Ascent Preliminary Design Review (PDR). SpaceX will hold a Ground Systems and Ascent Preliminary Design Review (PDR) to demonstrate that the overall CTS preliminary design for ground systems and ascent meets all requirements with acceptable risk and within schedule constraints and that it establishes the basis for proceeding with detailed design. December 2012 Complete $35 Million
5 Pad Abort Test Review. SpaceX will hold a Pad Abort Test Review to demonstrate the maturity of the pad abort test article design and test concept of operations. March 2013 Complete $20 Million
6 Human Certification Plan Review. SpaceX will hold a Human Certification Plan Review to present the Human Certification Plan. This Human Certification Plan Review will cover plans for certification of the design of the spacecraft, launch vehicle, and ground and mission operations systems. May 2013 Complete $50 Million
7 On-Orbit and Entry Preliminary Design Review (PDR). SpaceX will hold an On-Orbit and Entry Preliminary Design Review (PDR) to demonstrate that the overall CTS preliminary design for orbit, rendezvous and docking with the ISS, and entry flight regimes meets all requirements with acceptable risk and within schedule constraints and that it establishes the basis for proceeding with detailed design. July 2013 Complete $35 Million
8 In-Flight Abort Test Review. SpaceX will hold an In-Flight Abort Test Review to demonstrate the maturity of the in-flight abort test article design and test concept of operations. September 2013 Complete $10 Million
9 Safety Review. SpaceX will hold a Safety Review at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA, or a nearby facility to demonstrate that the CTS design is progressing toward meeting the Commercial Crew Program’s safety goals. October 2013 Complete $50 Million
10 Flight Review of Upgraded Falcon 9. SpaceX will conduct a review of a launch of the upgraded Falcon 9 launch vehicle demonstrating the operation of enhanced first-stage M1D engines, stage separation systems, enhanced second-stage MVacD engine and mission-critical vehicle telemetry during flight. Demonstration of the upgraded launch vehicle will serve as a risk reduction for the planned inflight abort test. November 2013 Compete $0
15A&B Dragon Parachute Tests. SpaceX will conduct parachute drop tests in order to validate the new parachute design as capable of supporting a pad abort event. Milestone 15A included a crane drop test. Milestone 15B featured a helicopter drop test. November 2013 Complete $20 Million
TOTAL TO DATE
(OUT OF $460 MILLION):
$330 Million
11 Pad Abort Test. SpaceX will conduct a pad abort test of the Dragon spacecraft. The scenario where an abort is initiated while the CTS is still on the pad is a design driver for the launch abort system as it dictates the total impulse and also requires parachute deployment in close proximity to the ground. December 2013 Pending $30 Million
12 Dragon Primary Structure Qualification. SpaceX will conduct static structural testing of all Dragon primary structure components to ultimate load factors, as applicable. This series of tests will validate the Dragon structure’s ability to maintain integrity during all driving load cases as well as verify the accuracy of math models used to analyze the Dragon structure. Individual tests will be designed to exercise all credible failure modes and minimum margin areas. January 2014 Pending $30 Million
13 Integrated Critical Design Review (CDR). SpaceX will hold an Integrated Critical Design Review (CDR) to demonstrate that the maturity of the CTS design is appropriate to support proceeding with full-scale fabrication, assembly, integration and test. March 2014 Pending $40 Million
14 In-Flight Abort Test. SpaceX will conduct an in-flight abort test of the Dragon spacecraft. The in-flight abort test will supplement the pad abort test and complete the corners-of-the-box stress cases. The in-flight abort scenario represents a Dragon abort while under propulsive flight of the launch vehicle during the worst-case dynamic loads on the CTS. April 2014 Pending $30 Million
TOTAL: $460 Million

  • windbourne

    Well this is interesting. I wonder how soon they will do the pad abort test?

  • mattmcc80
  • Stuart

    This is great to see… but just how will the shortfall in the requested budget as reported elsewhere (SpaceflightNow.Com) affect the commercial crew space revolution? I fear the “cut” will come sooner rather than later.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “During a normal spacecraft landing, the parachutes will be aided by the Dragon’s SuperDraco thrusters to provide a soft controlled landing. This redundancy on both the parachutes and thrusters is designed to ensure safe landings for crews.”
    So this solves the worry of the landing engines failing unexpectly – the plan is to use parachutes with SuperDracos. See here for 2 second animation starting at 00:41:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zet-X_7MG_Q

  • Hug Doug

    nice catch. i’ve never seen that bit of animation before.

  • Hug Doug

    even if it is cut, SpaceX is in the best position to keep going with its manned capsule on its own.

  • windbourne

    thanx. I missed that from yesterday.
    Still, that is taking a time. Basically, they will be 2 Qs back from the schedule.

  • Tonya

    Interesting. Landing with parachutes in combination loses precision, and the animation shows it landing out in a field rather than perfectly on a pad.

    This was a thought I shared on here just a few days ago regarding the Russian decision on propulsive landing. For a capsule, landing on a dime isn’t necessarily that valuable for reuse. As long as you can bring it down reliably within a few square miles, it’s small enough to be picked up and brought back by helicopter.

    If they’ve improved safety at the cost of a little landing precision, that would be a sensible trade.

  • windbourne

    Actually, I think that Boeing is in the best position. They have loads of money and ppl to finish up the CST-100 easily. The question is, would Boeing/ULA do so? My guess is that they will do so, IFF they know that money via missions will be forthcoming.

    I will say that SpaceX is in the best position to finish first.
    In fact, they might be able to launch other sats with the test so as to recover some of the costs.
    And I think that we can all agree that SpaceX WILL finish it out regardless of what NASA does. They are too close and Musk wants to be on Mars.
    I suspect that he would be first, BUT …..

  • Hug Doug

    you think Boeing would be willing to continue with its capsule without NASA money? my guess would be no, unless they’ve got a deal with Bigelow or something, there’d be no profit in it for them.

    whereas SpaceX is both way ahead of Boeing in terms of the capsule being ready to fly and they do want to fly people regardless of if NASA is footing the bill or not.

  • windbourne

    that is why I said that “IFF they know that money via missions will be forthcoming”.
    As it is, I think that CST-100 is already based on nearly 100% NASA money and next to nothing from Boeing itself.
    But, the craft is close enough that if NASA cut them off, and BA was going to start up, I think that they would finish it out.

    But, we both agree that SpaceX WILL continue. The question is, at what pace and what impact it will have on other SpaceX programs. Grasshopper, FH, and even raptor are intertwined and very important. Hopefully, none of these will suffer from CONgress’s BS.

  • Aerospike

    Well I guess it is a very sensible interim solution until the systems are matured enough to risk an all propulsive landing.

    The problem with propulsive landing is that it doesn’t matter how well your engines work most of the way down, if they fail below the altitude for the parachutes to deploy and slow down the capsule, you are doomed.

    So parachutes aren’t a good emergency backup system for propulsive landing, they are only useful if your engines fail high above ground or don’t work at all for some reason.

    I guess that’s why there will be 8 superdracos so that even when some fail (possible up to four?) Dragon will be able to safely bring the astronauts home (although you might not be able to reuse Dragon after a “rough” touchdown.

  • jb

    Curious…With Draco’s using hyperbolics what contamination risk is there for landing in ..lets say for argument…some farmers fields?

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I think that despite some drift introduced by the parachutes, it will still be able to touchdown within a square mile target zone – it’ll be their field it lands in. Cargo-Dragon landing has already proven to be quite accurate.

    The point about the hypergolics sounds valid enough – could complicate disembarkation and post-flight processing. But I bet SpaceX have thought this through so I wouldn’t fret on it.

  • windbourne

    I would suspect that they will land in the salt flats. Long ways away from just about anything.

  • Hug Doug

    If I Recall Correctly, I’ve heard that up to 2 Super Draco engines can fail and it could safely land. same thing with the Falcon 9, up to 2 engines can fail and it can still achieve orbit.

  • Hug Doug

    that’s not bad for an aerospace company!

  • Robert Gishubl

    If you look at the video at NASA about 0.59 seconds in

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6Kp6MMl0HQ&list=PLiuUQ9asub3Qq1AQRirDI-naOwo1H5gaB&index=1

    you will see they deliberately impart a tumble and the drogue recovers. Impressive…