NASA Orion Parachute Test Vehicle Fails Drop Test

By Keith Cowing
August 6, 2008
Filed under
NASA Orion Parachute Test Vehicle Fails Drop Test

Editor’s note: The following is a response from NASA ESMD PAO in response to an inquiry I made regarding the recent crash of a Orion Parachute Test Vehicle:

“The Constellation Program did conduct a test of the first generation design of the Orion parachute assembly system, which includes eight parachutes. To test that system, a mockup of an Orion crew exploration vehicle was dropped from a C-17 aircraft, 25,000 feet above the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona on July 31. The test requires 10 additional parachutes to get the mockup out of the plane, return the pallet the mockup sits on in the plane to the ground, and get the mockup to the correct orientation, altitude and speed for the test.

All but one of the 18 parachutes inflated. Although all other parts of the test and the system itself performed as intended, the parachute responsible for getting the mockup to the correct test conditions – called a programmer chute – did not inflate during the test. As a result, the test failed.

The engineering team will be studying the hardware and the parachutes, as well as analyzing computer models and imagery, to determine what caused the problem.”

Follow-up response:

“All but one of the 18 parachutes inflated (10 to get the mockup in the proper position; eight on the mockup). The parachutes that extract the mockup from the vehicle inflated and performed correctly. The pyrotechnics that separate the mockup from the pallet it sits on inside the plane successfully fired. However, the programmer chute that gets the mockup facing the correct direction and slows it down to the correct speed did not inflate when it was deployed. The engineering team will be looking into why that is.

All the parachutes that are actually part of the parachute assembly system continued to deploy and inflate as planned. There are three types of parachutes in the parachute assembly system: drogues that are designed to stabilize the spacecraft; pilots which pull out the main parachutes; and mains, which are the large parachutes that actually lower the spacecraft to the ground. However, because the programmer chute did not inflate and slow down the vehicle and get it turned in the correct direction, the vehicle was going much faster than it would normally have been, and those parachutes were exposed to much heavier loads.

The two drogue parachutes deployed and inflated as planned, however because they were experiencing increased loads, they separated from the mockup almost immediately. The three pilot parachutes then pulled out the three main parachutes successfully, however, two of the main parachutes also separated from the mockup – again because they were experiencing loads they weren’t designed to handle. Those two probably slowed the vehicle down enough that the third main parachute was able to stay attached until the vehicle reached the ground. The test vehicle did flip end over end during its descent.

The hardware was damaged, but some parts of it may be reusable.

NASA does not plan on issuing a formal statement — this was a test of a system and it has not yet been declared a “mishap.”

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.