On Friday, February 4, NASA and SpaceX had a press conference about the upcoming Crew-4 astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS). During the conference, representatives discussed the Dragon spacecraft's parachute safety due to a minor issue that was observed when the uncrewed 24th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-24) mission was completed on January 24. When SpaceX Dragon returns to Earth it crosses the atmosphere at high speeds and uses parachutes to slow down its descent. Dragon is equipped with four main parachutes that are deployed at a specific timing and altitude before splashing down into the ocean. NASA says “teams observed a single main parachute that lagged during inflation […]” when the uncrewed Dragon CRS-24 performed a parachute-assisted splashdown last month. One of the parachutes was 63 seconds late to inflate but it did not affect the cargo landing. A similar issue was observed in November 2021 when Crew-2 astronauts returned from the ISS. “The vertical descent rate of both flights was within the system design margins at splashdown, and all four main parachutes fully opened prior to splashdown on both missions,” the agency said.
NASA and SpaceX are working to complete a routine parachute system analysis before launching the Crew-4 astronauts to space. NASA Human Spaceflight Chief Kathy Lueders emphasized that analyzing the recent parachute issue –“is just us assessing and doing our normal job of checking out the hardware,” she said, assuring that it is not a major safety concern. SpaceX senior engineer Bill Gerstenmaier, who oversees crew safety, also assured that the lag in parachute deployment is not a safety concern but that they could learn a lot from the data they gathered. “This is a super chance for us to learn. I consider this almost a gift that we got on CRS-24,” he said, “We're going to get a chance to now have two sets of data that we can play against each other to improve our models and improve our knowledge and actually make a much safer system for everyone using these parachutes in the future.”
“As partners, NASA and SpaceX jointly review the imagery data and perform physical inspection of the drogue and main parachutes after flight. The inflation model also continues to be updated to better characterize and understand margins and splashdown conditions,” the agency said in a press release after the conference. “This review of flight data and parachute performance models will be completed prior to the launch of the Crew-4 mission and the return of Crew-3 astronauts from the International Space Station,” the agency said. “The results of the data reviews are discussed as part of joint engineering and program control boards and findings presented at the agency’s flight readiness review in advance of the next crew mission. NASA and SpaceX still are targeting launch of the Crew-4 mission Friday, April 15, to the International Space Station.”
Crew-4 NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, Jessica Watkins, and European Space Agency (ESA) Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, already completed training. They will launch aboard a brand new Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a previously-flown SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. For the first time SpaceX will reuse a thrice-flown Falcon 9 booster to launch NASA astronauts to the orbiting laboratory. According to NASA Commercial Crew manager Steve Stich, the agency plans to launch Crew-4 using first-stage booster B1067, which previously launched the company’s 22nd cargo Commercial Resupply Services mission to the orbiting laboratory (CRS-22) in June 2021, then it launched Crew-3 astronauts to the ISS in November 2021, and it deployed Turkey’s Turksat-5B satellite in December 2021.
Featured Image Source: NASA