Another Hiccup for SpaceX On the Road to Demo-2

Another Hiccup for SpaceX On the Road to Demo-2

A parachute test for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon went awry today.  While it was not a failure of the parachute itself, it could impact the schedule for the crewed flight test to the International Space Station, Demo-2, that the company and NASA hope to launch in May. It follows an engine failure on the most recent Falcon 9 launch that is under investigation.

SpaceX has been testing a new parachute design for Crew Dragon following a number of failures with previous versions.  The test program reportedly has been going well.  However, in a statement this evening, SpaceX said that during a planned drop test today, the test article hanging underneath the helicopter became unstable and had to be released before the parachute system was armed, so the parachute did not deploy.  The test article was destroyed, but no one was injured.  NASA and SpaceX are deciding on next steps.

“During a planned parachute drop test today, the test article suspended underneath the helicopter became unstable. Out of an abundance of caution and to keep the helicopter crew safe, the pilot pulled the emergency release. As the helicopter was not yet at target conditions, the test article was not armed, and as such, the parachute system did not initiate the parachute deployment sequence. While the test article was lost, this was not a failure of the parachute system and most importantly no one was injured. NASA and SpaceX are working together to determine the testing plan going forward in advance of Crew Dragon’s second demonstration mission.” — SpaceX

SpaceX is developing Crew Dragon as a public-private partnership with NASA to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS.  SpaceX owns the spacecraft and Falcon 9 launch vehicles, NASA just purchases services, but it must meet a number of contractual requirements to ensure the system is safe before NASA will put its astronauts aboard.  The company completed an uncrewed flight test, Demo-1, one year ago.  Much has happened since then, but a successful In-Flight Abort test in January paved the way for Demo-2.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (left) and Bob Behnken (right) at SpaceX headquarters, Oct. 10, 2019. Photo credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

NASA and SpaceX announced on March 18 that they are targeting mid-late May for Demo-2.  NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are the crew.

Boeing is developing its own commercial crew system, Starliner, which has its own challenges.  It is not clear when it will be ready to fly crews.  Its uncrewed test flight in December suffered troubling software anomalies and NASA is still deciding whether that Orbital Flight Test must be repeated before performing the crewed test flight.

NASA is anxious to get these commercial crew systems operating.  They were supposed to be ready by now so Russia has cut back production of its Soyuz spacecraft.  NASA has been purchasing crew transportation services from Russia since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011, but now there are only two instead of four Soyuz flights per year. The ISS crew size will be limited to three people instead of six until Crew Dragon and/or Starliner are flying.

The March 18 Demo-2 announcement was in the form of a call for media accreditation to cover the launch. As is typical, it was phrased that the launch would be “no earlier than” mid-late May.  What was unusual is that it was issued soon after a SpaceX Falcon 9 suffered an engine failure when launching the sixth set of 60 SpaceX Starlink communications satellites. In this case, the rocket’s other eight engines were sufficient to get the satellites into the correct orbit, but SpaceX CEO Elon Musk acknowledged in a tweet that the incident would need to be thoroughly investigated.  SpaceX reuses its rockets and this was the fifth flight of the same vehicle.

Aviation Week & Space Technology’s Irene Klotz reported this morning that NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is joining the investigation, but the mid-late May time frame for Demo-2 is being retained for now.

Two NASA astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut are currently aboard ISS:  Drew Morgan, Jessica Meir, and Oleg Skripockha.  A crew exchange will take place in about two weeks.  They will return to Earth on Soyuz MS-15 on April 17 after their replacements arrive on April 9 on Soyuz MS-16.  That crew is comprised of two Russians and one American (Anatoly Ivanishin, Ivan Vagner and Chris Cassidy), who will stay until October.

Cassidy said in pre-launch interviews a few days ago that he is looking forward to welcoming Hurley and Behnken, but between the engine failure and the parachute test anomaly — not to mention any impacts from the coronavirus pandemic — it seems likely that will be later than May.

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