SpaceX Crew Dragon parachute test fails - but it's not what you think

A SpaceX Crew Dragon parachute test didn't end as intended this week, after the parachute system eventually intended to safely lower the spacecraft to the ground failed to deploy. While the failed test isn't being blamed on the Crew Dragon itself, it could still put a serious dampener on SpaceX and NASA's ambitions for the spacecraft.

Crew Dragon's parachutes are intended to deploy to dramatically reduce the speed of the spacecraft ahead of a landing. SpaceX has completed multiple successful tests, starting out with one parachute and then ramping up to three on the same capsule. If Crew Dragon is to get approved for active use by NASA, though, it needs to be safe enough for human astronauts to be onboard.

This latest trial involved dropping a test article – representing the Crew Dragon itself – from a helicopter. What was meant to happen is the new, Mark 3 SpaceX parachute design unfurl. Instead that failed to take place, and the test article was destroyed.

According to SpaceX, though, it was more bad luck than anything else. As the helicopter rose, the test article became unstable, a spokesperson told SpaceNews; "Out of an abundance of caution and to keep the helicopter crew safe," they explained, "the pilot pulled the emergency release."

The parachute system, however, had not been armed. That was only intended to take place when the helicopter was in place. As a result, "the parachute system did not initiate the parachute deployment sequence" the SpaceX spokesperson said. Nobody was injured in the incident.

SpaceX Crew Dragon testing takes many forms

SpaceX's work to demonstrate to NASA that Crew Dragon is ready for missions is going on across multiple fronts right now. This botched parachute test is the latest of a series of such trials – most of them successful, it's worth noting. Last November, for example, SpaceX said it had aced 13 of the Mark 3 parachute system tests in a row, including one where one of the parachutes intentionally failed to deploy.

At the same time, other tests have been examining how Crew Dragon performs in other areas. Also in November 2019, the spacecraft ran through its static fire tests, with SpaceX running burns of the Draco thrusters and SuperDraco engines.

Come January 2020, and SpaceX was testing out the Crew Dragon's abort system. That was a particularly important moment, as it looks at how the capsule can handle breaking away from a problem rocket. Sure enough, Crew Dragon safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX is hoping the timeline isn't derailed

Not every test goes to plan, as SpaceX discovered during a Falcon 9 incident earlier in March when an engine prematurely shut down. NASA will be taking part in the investigation into that, to see if there's cause for further concern.

For Crew Dragon, the hope is that this problematic parachute test doesn't screw up the Demo-2 Crew Dragon mission. Expected to take place sometime in May, if it gets the go-ahead it will see two American astronauts use the spacecraft to travel to the International Space Station.