SpaceX ended the year on a high this week when it completed the 10th consecutive successful test of the Crew Dragon’s Mark 3 parachutes.
The achievement keeps the company on track for the first manned test of its space capsule ahead of astronaut missions to the International Space Station (ISS) — both of which could take place as early as next year.
“Yesterday ,the team completed the 10th successful multi-chute test in a row of Crew Dragon’s upgraded Mark 3 parachute design,” SpaceX said in a tweet, adding: “One step closer to safely launching and landing NASA astronauts.”
SpaceX announced in October 2019 that it was developing the new Mark 3 parachutes for the Crew Dragon. The nylon straps used with the previous design have been replaced with Zylon, a stronger polymer material created by a team at Stanford University. The parachutes also feature a different stitching pattern to help distribute the weight of the capsule more evenly.
“We think the Mark 2 parachutes are safe, but the Mark 3 parachutes are possibly 10 times safer,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said when the new design was unveiled in the fall.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine added that the parachutes were a challenge to model, saying: “What we need to have is consistent, repeatable performance. We need a lot of drop tests.”
With this week’s successful parachute test, SpaceX is a step closer to announcing the first manned test flights for its space capsule, which earlier this year made a crewless round-trip flight to the ISS.
SpaceX has also been testing the capsule’s launch escape system. It uses engines that activate in the event of a launch anomaly, carrying the capsule and the astronauts away from the rocket and out of danger. A successful ground-based test took place in November 2019 following a failed one seven months earlier. A crucial in-flight test of the system could take place in January 2020.
Boeing is also prepping its Starliner capsule for crewed missions to the ISS. However, the company suffered a setback last week when the Starliner failed to rendezvous with the space station on its first orbital test flight. Engineers were, however, able to bring the capsule safely back to Earth.
Utilizing the Crew Dragon and Starliner for manned missions would end U.S. reliance on Russia’s Soyuz program, enabling NASA to send astronauts into space from American soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.
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