SpaceX: Why NASA Says That Crew Dragon Parachute Failing a Test Is a "Gift"

The Dragon V2 or Crew Dragon.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, SpaceX’s capsule designed to ferry humans, failed another systems test last month, a subcommittee hearing revealed Wednesday. But, as a representative from NASA later explained, the failure has a silver lining in providing vital data that well help researchers tweak the design for future launches.

This is according to the agency’s associate administrator of human exploration, Bill Gerstenmaier, who in a hearing hosted by the U.S. House of Representatives’ science, space and technology committee said that the failure is “part of the learning process.”

“Their teams are fully engaged, we are understanding this,” Gerstenmaier said. “This is a gift to us. We have gotten data that is unique, that will help us design and understand if this is something that needs to be fixed, or if this is something that was just a nuance of the test and the configuration.”

It’s the second reported test failure in the month of April for the human-carrying capsule, designed to bring astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX is working alongside Boeing, which is developing the CST-100, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. These projects will hopefully soon enable NASA to resume sending astronauts into space from American soil. Since the agency cut the shuttle program in 2011, it has been buying seats on Russian Soyuz rockets at around $80 million each, sending up crew from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome.

SpaceX’s capsule got off to a promising start. In the “Demo-1” test flight, it hauled 400 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station in March, the first time that a commercially-built capsule designed for humans autonomously docked to the station. A dummy called “Ripley” also helped collect data about how humans may react to the flight. The capsule eventually returned to Earth in the Atlantic Ocean six days later.

spacex crew dragon capsule
The Crew Dragon being hoisted aboard the Go Searcher.

SpaceX Crew Dragon: How It Failed a Parachute Test

The most recent failure took place in April at Delamar Dry lake in Nevada. The capsule is fitted with four parachutes. The “single-out” test was designed to figure out what would happen if one of these four parachutes failed ahead of time. Unfortunately, the other three did not operate as expected while testing this scenario, and the test sled was took some damage upon impact.

Gerstenmaier admitted to the failure after a specific question from Mo Brooks, a Republican representative from Alabama. Ars Technica noted that Brooks in particular has pushed back against certain players in this new commercially-led era of space, introducing a bill in March 2018 that describes his local Marshall Space Flight Center as “essential” for developing next-generation rockets even though SpaceX and others have developed their rockets elsewhere.

“By these failures we’re going to learn the data and information to affect the design for the safe design for our crews,” Gerstenmaier said. “I don’t see this as a negative. This is why we test, this is why we want to push things, this is why we want to learn.”

SpaceX also experienced a failure that same month at its test stand in Cape Canaveral, Florida at Landing Zone 1. The tests were aimed at firing the Draco thrusters for maneuvering, before powering up the SuperDraco thrusters for in-flight abort tests one hour later. The final phase ended with what SpaceX called “an anomaly” on the test stand. Footage of the failure went viral on Twitter.

Responding to the Florida failure, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine was similarly positive that such stumbles would help improve the capsule:

Discussing the Nevada failure, Gerstenmaier explained that the team will now look at whether the failure was caused by the unique setup of the tests, or whether it points to a larger design problem.

“The good thing on the test was we had instrumented lines going up to the parachute, so we know exactly what the loads were in the system,” Gerstenmaier said. “We still need to understand whether it was a test set up configuration coming out of the aircraft, or if there was something associated with the packing of the parachutes, the rigging, all that.”

SpaceX Crew Dragon: What’s Next

NASA now expects to complete an in-flight abort test of the same capsule used in the “Demo-1” launch. This will demonstrate how the capsule works during an unexpected failure in launches. SpaceX will launch a manned crew mission, “Demo-2,” at an as-yet undetermined time after the in-flight abort test. A February blog post suggested the second demo could arrive as early as July 2019, but in April NASA stated it would reevaluate these dates.