Another crew of four astronauts, Crew-2, splashed down safely in the Gulf of Mexico inside a different Crew Dragon capsule on Monday. A set of four large parachutes were released about four minutes before they landed. Those chutes are designed to fully unfurl almost instantly once the capsule comes within a mile from landing. But one took roughly a minute to inflate, heaping most of the burden of slowing the capsule on the other three chutes.
The capsule’s rate of descent still looked good, NASA and SpaceX officials said, but the one “laggy chute,” as described by Kathy Lueders, NASA’s space operations chief, was a glitch that demanded close inspection.
NASA officials discussed the chute issue at length with SpaceX engineers during a routine safety review at Kennedy Space Center ahead of Wednesday’s launch of the Crew-3 astronauts in another Crew Dragon capsule. When those astronauts return in April, they will need to rely on the same type of parachutes.
After examining flight data from Crew-2’s return and the parachute’s manufacturing records from the subcontractor that builds them, teams found no issues with the chute that should prevent Crew-3 from heading to space, said Bill Gerstenmaier, a SpaceX official who once oversaw human spaceflight for NASA, on Tuesday night.
“We’re still learning how to operate these vehicles, we’re learning how to fly in space,” he said, “and the way you do that safely is you keep looking at the data and you learn from each and every flight.”
SpaceX retrieved the Crew-2 capsule’s spent parachutes from the Gulf of Mexico and shipped them back to its facilities in Cape Canaveral, Fla., for inspection. Officials hung the faulty chute off a crane and examined it in daylight “to make sure that there was nothing in that parachute that we didn’t understand,” Mr. Gerstenmaier said. He added that everything looked normal.
Although the other three chutes can carry Crew Dragon’s weight, the capsule’s “laggy” chute seen Monday night highlights how simple parachutes are still essential to safe spacecraft landings on Earth and other worlds, like Mars. For instance, parachute problems have impeded the on-time launch of ExoMars, a joint European-Russian robotic rover for the red planet.
Descent parachutes have also been a headache for NASA over years of testing and a persistent development challenge for both SpaceX and Boeing, the other company under NASA’s Commercial Crew program that is building Starliner, another astronaut capsule that is years behind SpaceX.
“It is behavior we’ve seen multiple times in other tests,” Ms. Lueders said on Monday night about the faulty chute, adding it’s something that “usually happens when the lines kind of bunch up together” until forced open during descent by the wind.
“The thing that makes me feel a little more confident is that the loading and the deceleration of the spacecraft all looked nominal for us, which is good news,” she said.