NASA's Orion Capsule Makes Perfect Test Landing, Minus A Few Parachutes

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NASA hasn’t sent humans into space on its own spacecraft since the Space Shuttle orbiters retired, so they really want to be sure things are working properly before astronauts climb aboard the next-generation Orion capsule. Earlier today, NASA simulated a “Minimum System Test” in which some of Orion’s parachutes were disabled on purpose.

The Orion capsule was hauled to 35,000 feet aboard a USAF C-17 Globemaster III strategic heavy cargo jet for today’s parachute test. While Orion will normally land on water, today’s drop was made over the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The exercise allowed NASA engineers to validate Orion’s ability to decelerate from orbital speeds under less-than-ideal conditions, such as when (or if) some of the capsule’s parachutes fail to deploy.

Unlike the space shuttle orbiters, which landed on runways after gliding back to Earth from space, Orion has no aircraft-like glide capability to produce drag and slow itself down on descent. One of the best ways to make a safe landings is through the use of multiple parachutes, intended to bring the craft’s speed down to about 17 miles per hour at splashdown. At this speed, NASA estimates astronauts and cargo will be able to make a comfortable landing in the ocean.


Orion’s parachute system is designed to return the capsule safely even if a failure occurs with one of the two drogue parachutes and one of the three main parachutes simultaneously. That capability was effectively demonstrated this morning, which is another positive sign in the capsule’s development.

Orion’s next flight is scheduled to occur in 2018, which will be the first time it is launched on top of the new Space Launch System. This flight will be uncrewed, but will carry several CubeSat satellites into orbit. Astronauts aren’t expected to ride aboard Orion until 2021 (at the earliest) when they will rehearse for an encounter with a captured asteroid that will be parked in lunar orbit ahead of their launch.


A Delta 4-Heavy rocket carrying carrying NASA’s Orion capsule lifts off on the spacecraft’s first unmanned orbital test flight from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in December 2014.


Photo credit: Top shot - Craig Fritz/AP, Delta 4-Heavy liftoff with Orion - Chris O’Meara/AP

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