When NASA and SpaceX landed the last two Dragon capsules including last fall’s Crew Dragon with humans on board, not all four of the parachutes deployed as planned, with the fourth parachute inflating as much as 75 seconds later than the other three.
On Friday, NASA officials revealed that the phenomenon has actually occurred in several previous missions and during testing, but that they will be investigating it further to ensure the safety of future crew and cargo missions.
“We’ll take the time to look through the data for this and make sure that we can clear it both before Crew-3 returns and Crew-4 launches,” said NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich.
The Crew-4 launch is slated for April 15 to mark the third operational rotation of crew since SpaceX Crew Dragons began launches with humans to the International Space Station from Kennedy Space Center. Before that, though, a SpaceX Dragon will be used by Axiom Space to send the first crew of private citizens to the ISS with a potential March 30 launch.
The focus on the parachutes came to light after NASA did not broadcast the landing of the CRS-24 cargo mission off the Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico on Jan. 24, but NASA confirmed an investigation into the fourth parachute delay to media outlet Spacenews.com, and faced criticism of the lack of transparency with the mission.
Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Associate Administrator of the Space Operations Mission Directorate, said future cargo missions will at least feature post-landing media teleconferences.
“We obviously want to make sure that you know these are the nation’s missions and we want to make sure that you’re understanding that we’re providing the data that we need to be able to make sure that our nation understands what’s going on on their mission,” Lueders said.
Lueders, Stich and SpaceX official Bill Gerstenmaier conveyed that while the inflation issue with the parachute is a concern, the spacecraft is safely rated to land with just three parachutes.
“If we didn’t have the video, you wouldn’t even know that this was occurring,” Gerstenmaier said “If you just look at the digital data you would not be able to detect any change in performance. So the system is operating correctly, but even though the system is operating correctly, we’re not happy with that. We’re going to keep looking and see if we can understand better how the system actually operates and understand where the weaknesses are in the system so we can have a safer system for crews moving forward.”
Stich said Dragon is the first time a human-rated spacecraft has featured four parachutes. The Boeing CST-100 Starliner, which is still working on certification to join SpaceX as part of the Commercial Crew Program, only features three.
“Going all the way back to the Apollo program, the parachute systems for human spaceflight were designed to tolerate a single chute out, and so what that means is for the SpaceX Dragon configuration we could have one parachute totally almost be missing from the descent rate,” he said.
Stich said NASA has more experience with lagging parachutes than have previously been shared with the media, but that they’re not ignoring the problem or chalking it up to what engineers have historically categorized as “normalization of deviance.”
“We’re trying to understand is there something unique about those four parachutes relative to the three-parachute clusters we flew in the past and so we’re just tracking that data very carefully,” Stich said. “We are digging into this aggressively like we would any particular problem. We are trying to understand the physics, We are trying to understand what’s going on and so I think we are taking all the right steps in this investigation and looking at the data.”
Stich said teams will pore through all the imagery, inspect all of the parachutes including the four mains and two drogues recovered from the CRS-24 landing, look at the documentation and see how the parachutes were rigged and packed.
“We’re going to use this as a chance to confirm that and make doggone sure we’re really right and we really understand how the system operates,” he said.
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