SpaceX tests parachutes for returning astronauts

The commercial space flight contractor recently ran tests for its Crew Dragon capsule, scheduled to fly in 2017.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced Thursday that SpaceX has successfully conducted a test of its Crew Dragon parachutes.

NASA released a video of SpaceX’s parachute test over Coolidge, Arizona. A dummy version of the Dragon capsule was carried by a C-130 aircraft.

This is one of the final tests in a battery of them, required by NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Through the program, the agency contracts to private corporations, such as SpaceX, to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

In the video, a NASA representative said that, “tests like this allow engineers to assess the reliability of flight-like hardware.”

When SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is able to successfully complete its crew certification, the capsule will be able to ferry crew members to and from the International Space Station.

According to NASA’s website, “Ultimately, the goal is to establish safe, reliable and cost-effective access to space. Once a transportation capability is certified to meet NASA requirements, the agency will fly missions to meet its space station crew rotation and emergency return obligations.”

SpaceX and Boeing were both awarded contracts to carry astronauts to and from the ISS in 2014. In November 2015, SpaceX received its first crewed mission order – the first crewed flights are scheduled for 2017.

Gwynne Shotwell, president and CEO of SpaceX, expressed pride in her company when she heard the news.

“When Crew Dragon takes NASA astronauts to the space station in 2017, they will be riding in one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown," Ms. Shotwell said. "We're honored to be developing this capability for NASA and our country.”

Currently, NASA pays the Russian Federal Space Agency to ferry American astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The Russian Soyuz TMA spacecraft takes 3.5 hours to return to Earth, and lands in Kazakhstan.

SpaceX, founded by tech mogul and business magnate Elon Musk, first won a NASA cargo contract in 2006. It flew its first cargo mission in 2012. The original capsule design that SpaceX is currently using to ferry cargo was also designed to carry human passengers.

The parachute system on the newer Crew Dragon capsule is more advanced than parachute arrays from previous tests, with four main parachutes as well as drogue parachutes. Drogue parachutes slow the capsule before the main parachutes are deployed.

Astronauts who travel in the Crew Dragon capsule will travel in style. Crew Dragon was designed with comfort in mind – a climate-controlled cabin and high quality seats will keep astronauts happy on the way to the International Space Station. The capsule’s emergency escape system is designed to keep them safe.

While, “Initially, the spacecraft will splash down safely in the ocean using parachutes,” according to the NASA representative featured in the test video, “ultimately the company wants to land the vehicle on land using eight SuperDraco engines.”

The capsule’s water landings recall NASA’s Apollo capsule splash downs. SpaceX completed a hover test with its propulsion engines in November and hopes that it will eventually be able to achieve a propulsive landing.

Another private contractor, Sierra Nevada, won a NASA cargo resupply contract earlier this month. The company’s Dream Chaser shuttles are designed like miniature versions of NASA’s familiar space shuttle, and can land on conventional runways.

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