SpaceX leaps closer to launching NASA astronauts after parachute testing milestone

SpaceX says it has just passed a critical Crew Dragon parachute test milestone, taking the company a big step closer to launching NASA astronauts. (SpaceX)

SpaceX says it has completed a test campaign of Crew Dragon’s upgrade parachutes, reaching a milestone that CEO Elon Musk recently described as a necessity before the spacecraft can be certified to launch NASA astronauts.

Beginning in late-October 2019, SpaceX kicked off an extensive test campaign of Crew Dragon’s recently-upgraded “Mark 3” parachute system, performing more than a dozen consecutively successful tests in a single week. SpaceX started with high-stress single-chute tests simulating far higher loads than Crew Dragon could ever technically exhibit in flight, resulting in two back-to-back failures.

SpaceX further improved the design with supplier Airborne Systems and began testing anew, successfully completing 10 single-chute tests in a row in a matter of days. Immediately after individual testing was completed as planned, SpaceX began multi-chute tests, initially simulating Crew Dragon’s ability to ensure a soft and survivable landing even if one of its four parachutes fully fails before splashdown.

Most recently, SpaceX announced on December 4th that it had completed the 7th consecutively successful multi-chute drop test, leaving three additional tests to go before reaching its goal of at least 10 consecutive successes.

Now, a bit less than three weeks after that 7th test, SpaceX says it has completed the 10th multi-chute drop test of Crew Dragon’s upgraded Mk3 parachutes, achieving the tentative goals set by CEO Elon Musk and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine just two months ago. By the numbers, since Bridenstine first announced his expectation of “as many as 10 drop tests between now and the end of the year”, SpaceX alone has completed at least 20 successful tests in a row in the last eight weeks, averaging more than one test every three days.

“We could see as many as 10 drop tests between now and the end of the year and depending on how the next 10 drop tests go, we will know how many more drops tests we are going to add.”

Jim Bridenstine, October 10th, 2019

As Bridenstine indicated, this does not necessarily guarantee that NASA, SpaceX, or both entities won’t choose to perform additional tests, but a full 20 successful parachute tests in a row is an undeniable sign that Crew Dragon’s latest upgrades are bearing fruit. In simpler terms, SpaceX and Crew Dragon should be closer than ever to achieving the requirements NASA has laid out to certify spacecraft for human spaceflight.

With a successful orbital launch and recovery (including parachutes) already under its belt, Crew Dragon’s next milestone – scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) January 11th – is a suborbital In-Flight Abort (IFA) test that will technically serve as the second full-system recovery test. If that launch, abort, and Atlantic Ocean contingency splashdown go as planned, there is a very good chance that NASA will finally close out SpaceX’s parachute systems for Crew Dragon’s first crewed launch.

On November 13th, SpaceX successfully static fired Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco engines in anticipation of a critical In-Flight Abort (IFA) test. (SpaceX)
SpaceX has finally set the date for Crew Dragon's In-Flight Abort test. (Teslarati - Pauline Acalin)
Excluding Falcon 9, all pieces of SpaceX’s first astronaut-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft are visible in this one frame. (Teslarati – Pauline Acalin)

Known as Demo-2, SpaceX has said that the mission’s Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon hardware will be ready for launch as early as late-December. If Dragon’s IFA test and any additional subsystem tests run into problems, Demo-2 hardware will of course no longer be ready, per se, but if those tests are completed without issue, SpaceX has indicated that Crew Dragon’s first astronaut launch could follow as soon as February or March 2020.

The road to SpaceX’s first human launch has been long and winding, but – barring calamity – the milestone appears, at long last, to be well within reach. Accounting for potential technical or NASA paperwork-related delays, it’s extremely likely that the first NASA astronauts will be at the helm of a Crew Dragon spacecraft on top of a Falcon 9 rocket less than six months from now.

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SpaceX leaps closer to launching NASA astronauts after parachute testing milestone
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