One small step for man: NASA’s Orion spacecraft has parachutes tested at YPG
By Matt Harding, Sun Staff Writer Mar 8, 2017
It looks a lot like a sci-fi movie UFO.
Except we know what it is. And it’s not flying — it’s falling.
An Orion model spacecraft was dropped from a C-17 aircraft Wednesday morning at Yuma Proving Ground near Quartzsite, a test of the attached parachute system that will one day be used to bring the capsule back to earth after a mission to Mars.
Astronauts and NASA crew from around the country gathered at the drop site, eager to see Orion take its steps toward manned missions.
The drop was a “full-system test,” said Koki Machin, chief engineer of NASA’s Capsule Parachute Assembly System (CPAS). It included two drogue parachutes, used to slow and stabilize the capsule at high altitude (Orion was dropped from 25,000 feet).
Three pilot parachutes were used to pull out the three main parachutes, which gently guided the spacecraft to the ground.
“We’re looking at how the drogues perform when they’re deployed at a low air speed,” Machin said, adding that human spacecraft are designed for re-entry into the atmosphere, but also for mission aborts, which is a part of what the low-speed test evaluates.
He said it generates models that are able to run thousands upon thousands of simulations, but also helps engineers “learn about the things you can’t model.”
“(These are) the set of chutes we’re going to qualify for humans,” Machin said.
One of those humans could be Stan Love, an astronaut who’s been with NASA since 1998 as a part of the 17th selection of astronauts.
As a mission specialist, he flew on the space shuttle Atlantis, which in 2008 put the Columbus laboratory module on the International Space Station. He also did two spacewalks.
Now, he’s the astronaut representative for Orion and the Space Launch System that will carry Orion.
Wednesday, he got to add “Orion parachute test observer” to his lengthy resume after visiting Yuma for the first time.
“The parachutes are one of the absolutely critical safety, must-work parts of that spacecraft,” Love said. “The final part of our journey coming back to earth after we’ve been to space is going to be under these parachutes, and so we’re going to test them very thoroughly and in a lot of different ways to make sure they work properly.”
He said NASA is anticipating its first unmanned test flight for the actual Orion spacecraft in 2018 or 2019, and that these tests will make sure it gets back to the ground — safe and sound.
“This test is an important milestone in the (continuing) steps to getting Orion flying,” he noted. “Orion is an important step toward building the systems we need to practice for going to Mars and to actually go to Mars.”
Love also mentioned that once Orion is ready to go, the spacecraft itself is not capable of going straight to Mars.
“It’s going to be our transportation method to get off the earth, get out to the distance of the moon or so, and that is probably where we would build the ship that goes to Mars,” he said. A Mars journey, he added, would take nine months each way, and astronauts would be committed to a 1-year stay.
From the moon, where the craft would take astronauts back to earth from such a mission, it would be a three day fall, Love said, hitting the atmosphere at 35 times the speed of sound.
That’s why the parachutes are so important — to ensure the capsule floats gently down into the ocean upon its return.
“They want to test it at a variety of speeds and altitudes and other conditions so that they can prove out what they call the corners of the box — the most extreme conditions under which the parachutes might ever have to function with the idea that in the center of the box is where it will normally be operating.”
More likely to be one of those humans on Mars, Victor Glover, an astronaut from NASA’s most recent selection class (2013), said the parachute tests are the small steps toward getting to the Red Planet in the future.
“This phase is kind of the crawl before you walk (or) run,” he said, later adding that it’s a “fast crawl.”
“Right now, we have paid for and are planning to and have missions to get this thing into lower-earth orbit and into the vicinity of the moon to test it and get back,” Glover said. “That, we are doing.”
But he said that when that spacecraft is used to go to Mars or an asteroid, it is up to future governmental funding.
No matter what, these tests are integral to further space exploration.
“This is one of the systems that keep the crew alive,” Glover said. “Today’s test is an opportunity for us to continue to find out more about this system. These parachutes have to get the crew to splash down safely.
“Would you want to … drive from here to San Diego with a guy you didn’t know? Would you want to go to the moon with a parachute that you didn’t understand? That’s what we’re out here doing.”
Each of the three main parachutes was connected to the Orion model by 80 risers — the lines on the parachutes. They’re made out of Kevlar and each riser is rated at 1,500 pounds, Glover said.
The capsule itself only weighs about 21,000 pounds.
NASA engineer and hardware lead on the parachute testing, Jared Daum, said everything looked good throughout the test.
“The main indicator of this being a good test is what happened in flight,” said Daum, adding that it was “safe,” “orderly” and had “a nice, steady descent to the ground.”
The next test will be in mid-June, he said.
For now, the capsule heads back to its hangar at Yuma International Airport after being crane-lifted onto the back of a flatbed truck from YPG. The parachute heads back to Orange County with NASA parachute contractor Airborne Systems. It won’t be used in the next test, but will be used in the test after that.
And maybe in the not-too-distant future — humans will head to Mars and eventually beyond that.
Like Glover told the Sun, “You’re standing in the midst of some of the smartest people I have ever met.”