A mock-up of NASA's Orion space shuttle successor twisted, tumbled and fell from thousands of feet up after a parachute failed to inflate properly during a July 31 test.
The programmer chute was designed to stabilize the mock-up before beginning a test of its parachute recovery system, but instead sent the capsule careening toward the desert floor at the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona.
"This is the most complicated parachute test NASA has run since the '60's," said Carol Evans, test manager for the parachute system at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We are taking a close look at what caused the set-up chutes to malfunction. A failure of set-up parachutes is actually one of the most common occurrences in this sort of test."
The Orion crew module is part of NASA's Constellation program slated to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.
Orion will carry astronauts into orbit atop the Ares I rocket to dock with an orbiting Earth departure stage previously launched by an Ares V rocket, and from there proceed to the moon.
The space shuttles are scheduled to retire from service as NASA's workhorses in 2010.
The failure occurred in one of 10 parachutes that make up the testing equipment, and not in the parachute recovery system itself.
Some of the parachutes helped the mock-up get clear of the C-17 airplane which carried the test capsule up to a drop height of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters).
The programmer chute that failed to inflate was designed to help two other stabilization chutes get the capsule into the right orientation, before releasing at a predetermined time to allow the parachute recovery system to take over.
The Orion recovery parachute system is based on the same eight-chute system used for the Apollo missions, for use in case of a launch abort.
Two drogue parachutes first deploy to slow and stabilize the capsule so that it points in the right direction.
Once the drogue chutes get cut away, three pilot chutes deploy to each pull out one of the three main 116-feet (35-meter) diameter parachutes that are meant to ensure a safe landing speed.
The mock-up was already dropping faster than intended by the time the drogue parachutes deployed during the test. The drogue parachutes cut away immediately and sent the test capsule into freefall.
The falling mock-up began to tumble out of control, and the resulting forces pulled the main parachutes out and tore away two of them. The third battered parachute held, but could not slow the falling mock-up on its own.
A final impact on the ground left the mock-up severely damaged.
NASA engineers and managers are looking to test procedures and test hardware and set-up, as well as video and photograph evidence, to figure out what might have led to the programmer chute's failure.
NASA announced in August that the first manned flight test won't launch until 2014 at the earliest, or four years after the space shuttle retires.
Earlier this week, the agency unveiled plans to add a shock absorbing system to smooth out excessive shaking of its Ares I rocket during launch.
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