SpaceX and NASA investigate slow parachutes on last 2 flights

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SpaceX and NASA investigate a parachute problem that occurred during the last two capsule flights.

One of the four main parachutes slowly inflated during the return of four astronauts to Earth last November. The same thing happened last week when a Dragon cargo capsule brought back science experiments from the International Space Station. In both cases, the sluggish parachute eventually opened and inflated — though more than a minute late — and the capsules plunged safely off the Florida coast.

Officials from SpaceX and NASA said Friday they want to better understand what’s happening, especially before launching a new crew in a month or two. They review photos and inspect the parachutes for clues, “extra careful with this very critical system,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program.

“We don’t take anything for granted,” SpaceX’s William Gerstenmaier, a former NASA official, told reporters.

SpaceX’s first private flight to the space station, with three businessmen buying tickets and their retired astronaut escort, will depart from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on March 30. NASA’s next astronaut ferry flight would follow on April 15.

Officials said the trailing parachutes also appeared during development and in previous cargo missions, and that it could just be a natural feature of the multi-parachute design. Despite the slow opening of one of the four large tubes, the capsules still descended at a safe rate, they noted. The descent data was almost normal, Gerstenmaier said.

Officials say only three of the four parachutes are needed for a safe landing off the coast of Florida.

Similar parachutes are being used on Boeing’s Starliner crew pod and NASA’s Orion moon capsule, which no astronauts have launched yet. These, too, sometimes lag behind inflating, Stich said, which is why the results of the SpaceX study will be shared.

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