SpaceX Crew Dragon Parachute Test Goes Awry; Crewed Flight to Space Station Could Slip to June

SpaceX performed its fourteenth overall parachute test supporting Crew Dragon Development March 4, 2018, over the Mojave Desert in Southern California. The test demonstrated an off-nominal, or abnormal, situation, deploying only one of the two drogue chutes and intentionally skipping a deployment stage on one of the four main parachutes. (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A SpaceX Crew Dragon parachute test went dangerously awry on Tuesday, resulting in the loss of a test article and contributing to a potential delay in the first crewed flight of the spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) scheduled for mid- to late May.

A source told Parabolic Arc that the helicopter pilot was forced to prematurely drop the test vehicle to save himself and the crew after experiencing dangerous oscillations with the suspended payload. The source, who is not authorized to speak to the media, requested anonymity.

The test article’s parachutes had not been armed to open yet, so the vehicle was completely destroyed when it plunged to the ground. The helicopter landed safely, and there were no injuries in the incident.

In a brief statement, SpaceX said the pilot pulled the emergency release “out of an abundance of caution” after the test article became unstable in flight. The parachutes were not armed because the vehicle “was not yet at target conditions.”

SpaceX stressed that the accident did not result form a problem with the parachutes. The company did not indicate what caused the test article to become unstable. NASA has not responded to Parabolic Arc‘s inquiries about the incident.

“NASA and SpaceX are working together to determine the testing plan going forward in advance of Crew Dragon’s second demonstration flight,” SpaceX said in its statement.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are due to launch aboard a Crew Dragon in May on a flight test to the space station. It will be the first launch with a crew aboard for the new vehicle, which is being developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

The anonymous source said the crewed flight will now likely take place in June due to a combination of the drop test failure on Tuesday and unrelated delays in preparing Crew Dragon and its Falcon 9 booster for the first crewed mission.

NASA also announced this week that it has joined a SpaceX investigation into an anomaly that occurred during a Falcon 9 launch earlier this month. One of the nine Merlin 1D engines failed about 10 seconds prior to the planned burnout of the booster’s first stage.

The failure did not affect the deployment of 60 satellites for the company’s Starlink broadband constellation. However, the rocket was similar to the one that will launch the upcoming Crew Dragon mission.

The booster’s first stage was being flown for a record fifth time. Crew Dragon will be launched by a brand new Falcon 9.

A Crew Dragon spacecraft made an automated flight to the space station last March. That vehicle subsequently exploded while it was being prepared for an in-flight abort test, resulting in a significant delay in the second demonstration flight.

In October, NASA and SpaceX announced that 10 additional drop tests would be conducted to iron out problems with Crew Dragon’s parachutes. A test article plunged to the ground after its parachutes failed to open during a test last year.

At a March 6 press conference held prior to a cargo Dragon launch to ISS, SpaceX Vice President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann said those tests had been successfully completed. He added that the company was feeling very confident in the system.

Koenigsmann said SpaceX was conducting three additional tests focused on “corner cases” to see how the parachutes would perform outside of normal operating parameters. One of those tests had been completed by the time of the press conference.

SpaceX did not indicate whether the test on Tuesday was the first or the second of the remaining tests. Parabolic Arc‘s source said the test was likely the first one.

The source added that SpaceX would need to fabricate an additional test article to conduct more parachute drop tests. The company might instead conduct a bench test on the parachutes.

Both SpaceX and Boeing, which is developing its Starliner spacecraft to carry astronauts to ISS for NASA, are running more than three years behind schedule in their respective programs. Both companies have had failures in their parachute tests.

NASA has had to purchase additional seats aboard Russian Soyuz vehicles to maintain an American presence on the space station. Those seats have begun to run out, so the space agency is eager to begin Commercial Crew flights to the orbiting facility.

NASA originally planned for the second Crew Dragon demonstration mission to involve a short stay at the station. However, the space agency is aiming to keep astronauts Hurley and Behnken in orbit for longer period of time to boost the American presence at ISS. NASA has not indicated how the long their mission will last.

Boeing is struggling to get its Starliner program back on track after a nearly disastrous automated flight test in December. The vehicle was almost destroyed twice in flight due to software errors, and it failed to accomplish the primary objective of docking with the space station. Instead, it flew an abbreviated two-day orbital flight before landing safely in New Mexico.

NASA has not announced whether Boeing will be forced to repeat the automating flight test before conducting one with astronauts aboard. Boeing has taken a $405 million charge against earnings to cover the mishap investigation and an additional flight.