NASA Successfully Conducts Highest Parachute Test Ever at YPG

2013-07-24 17:58:01

YUMA PROVING GROUND — During a high-altitude drop test conducted early Wednesday morning at Yuma Proving Ground, NASA engineers demonstrated that the space agency’s Orion space capsule can land safely on its return from space, even if one of its three main descent and landing parachutes breaks away from the other two.

In what was the 10th in a series of 17 tests to be conducted to develop the capsule’s parachute system, a nearly full-size replica of it was dropped from a U.S. Air Force C-17 from an altitude of 35,000 feet, which is the height commercial airlines typically fly at, over the base’s Robby/Lapoza drop zone at about 7:50 a.m.

Stu McClung, a NASA engineer and Landing and Recovery System Manager for the Orion program, explained that the test was designed to simulate a failure of the parachute system, which in this test, was of one of the capsule’s three massive main parachutes inadvertently separating early, leaving the spacecraft to land with only two.

“In this case, we had the computer command one of the three main parachutes to fail, by firing the riser line cutter, and intentionally separating it early,” McClung said. “It separated when it was supposed to. We had timed it to happen once all three chutes deployed and was starting to inflate and catch some air, which put a load into it.”

McClung said engineers have already proved that Orion can land with just two of its three main parachutes, but the importance of this test was to study how one parachute pulling away in mid-flight might affect the remaining two, and if any other damage was caused as a result. The parachute separated from the others approximately 8 seconds after they were deployed.

“This type of failure should never happen. The probabilities of it are pretty low,” McClung said. “From a parachute perspective, it is important for us to know that if we have that bad day, and something unexpected happened, did it cause any other failures? The unknown unknowns, that is one of the reasons to do this kind of test.”

Previous drop tests have been conducted form an altitude of 25,000 feet, with the parachutes deploying at 22,000 feet. McClung said having the 10,000 additional feet allowed engineers to actually begin the test at 25,000 feet, which better reflects the altitude the capsule would normally deploy its parachutes at when coming back from a mission.

“You have to let the vehicle fall to get it into test conditions. Previously we always had to start at 25,000 feet, so we were testing lower than we desired,” McClung stated. “So it was important to us to test like you fly. And one of the ways you do that is to try and match your entry conditions as closely as you can.”

McClung said the test appeared to have been successful and everything had gone as planned.

“We expected that the (parachute) would cut cleanly, and that it would pull away. Now we will see if it propagated any other failures,” McClung said. “And, even if we get in there and find some damage, it is still a success because we will learn from it, and be able to modify the design if we have to.”

The C-17 flew over the drop zone three times before dropping the replica capsule out its back cargo doors on its second pass. Once on the capsule had landed, NASA capsule parachute assembly system team members began recovery operations by gathering up the parachutes and organizing the cords so they could be folded and taken back to YPG’s air delivery complex, where they would be cleaned and repaired for future use.

YPG spokesman Chuck Wullenjohn added that each of the three main parachutes are 15,000 square feet in diameter and all three combined can almost cover an entire football field. The capsule’s descent and landing parachute system is also made up of approximately 10 miles of rope.

“I understand they are the largest parachutes ever made,’ Wullenjohn said.

In addition to being the highest altitude NASA has conducted a parachute test at since its Apollo program, Wullenjohn said it was also the highest drop ever performed at YPG,

Wullenjohn continued by saying NASA will be conducting seven more drops as part of the capsule’s parachute system’s development and eight more to qualify the final design in the coming months.

According to NASA, the Orion capsule will fly on Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), which was previously known as Orion Flight Test 1, and is set to launch in September 2014 from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The EFT-1 flight will take Orion to an altitude of more than 3,600 miles, more than 15 times farther away from Earth than the International Space Station and return home at a speed of 25,000 mph.