NASA, SpaceX to Investigate Delays in Crew Dragon Parachute Opening

In January, one of the six parachutes on a Cargo Dragon that was bringing valuable scientific research back to Earth opened more slowly than normal. The issue previously showed up when Crew-2 returned to Earth in November 2021.

NASA and SpaceX say that they are currently investigating the issue. The performance of both Dragons was pretty normal otherwise.

A NASA spokeperson said that lags in the deployment of a parachute are common in large ringsail parachutes like the ones used on the Dragon spacecraft. The issue could be due to the other three parachutes getting in the way when they inflate.

The Dragon’s parachute system includes four main parachutes that slow the spacecraft down during reentry and two parachutes that stabilize the system.

Previous issues with the Crew Dragon include unexpected “wear and tear” of the Crew Dragon’s heat shield used for the Demo-2 mission, during which astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken flew on the final certification test flight for the Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX technicians analyzed and shored up the issue to provide additional safety.

The Inspiration4 flight experienced issues with the onboard toilet. The crew was fortunately able to fix the issue. Due to the issue, though, Crew-2 did not use the onboard toilet during its return to Earth.

Crew-3 is still docked to the International Space Station and will likely return soon after Crew-4 launches in April. Although it may experience the parachute issue, NASA did not express much concern about it since the other parachutes functioned normally during the previous two reentries.

SpaceX has contracts with NASA to deliver cargo and crew to the International Space Station. NASA recently added three flights to the Commercial Crew contract and transferred two astronauts from the Boeing’s Starliner to the Crew Dragon to account for delays in the development of other crewed spacecraft like the Starliner. The Dragon can carry up to seven astronauts – the same crew capacity that the space shuttle had.

Russia is also considering flying one of its cosmonauts on the Crew Dragon after years of throwing shade at SpaceX.

NASA’s private contracts include a recently expanded multi-flight deal with Axiom Space to fly private crews to the International Space Station as part of preparations to send new inflatable modules to the space station. Veteran NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Michael López-Alegría will command the first two missions. The first mission is scheduled to launch in March.

SpaceX also plans to fly an orbital test of the Starship / Super Heavy stack as soon as it can get past the FAA approval process. Most of the delays in this test had to do with regulatory red tape. Despite the frequent sparring between SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and the FAA, a spokesman for the FAA has defended SpaceX during testimony before Congress before.

Reports indicate that SpaceX could fly Starship an average of once a week once it becomes operational, including using it to launch Starlink satellites and possibly deliver cargo for the U.S. Air Force. Compared to the regulatory red tape, the delay in a Dragon spacecraft parachute’s deployment may seem like a minor issue.