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NASA Space Transportation News

NASA's Orion Mock-Up Fails Parachute Test 163

leetrout writes "Fox News has the story on a parachute test failing on a mock up of the new Orion spacecraft. 'This is the most complicated parachute test NASA has run since the '60s,' 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.' has the video."
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NASA's Orion Mock-Up Fails Parachute Test

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  • by Cyrena ( 897852 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @02:12PM (#24709281)
    A more common occurance than success?
    • by porkchop_d_clown ( 39923 ) <mwheinz AT me DOT com> on Friday August 22, 2008 @02:24PM (#24709509) Homepage

      At this stage of development? Quite possible. If you read up on the history of the X- series and our early space launches, it's quite scary.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by tgatliff ( 311583 )

        Yes, except it really is kind of a disappointment that they have to "relearn" what they did with Apollo. One would have hoped they would have kept the documents and engineering notes to allow them to basically duplicate the earlier effort, but apparently they did not.

        • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @04:05PM (#24711105) Journal

          The documents and egineering notes from Apollo are both available and useless. I really wish the urban legend would die. Do you seriously imagine that we need to "relearn" how to make parachutes for fucks sake? Please stop parroting this BS.

          We're not doing things the way we did in the 60s for the simple reason that we know much better ways of doing things. Any large-scale engineering effort will run into significant problems here or there, and the problems are rarely tied to the underlying technology. Sometimes a supplier tries to get away with being cheap, and fails. Sometimes the written procedures are ambiguous in ways only obvious in hindsight. Sometime shit just goes wrong! There are always corner cases specific to a given complicated assemby of complicated pieces that you only find by testing.

          That's why engineers do testing. To find these problems.

        • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @04:10PM (#24711171) Journal

          You should, instead, lament the fact that The Reagan administration got rid of practically all of the corporate knowledge base as NASA in hopes of reducing the number of civil servants in favor of contractors they felt they could simply scale up and down as needed. The actual effect was to push out anyone capable of holding their own in the private marketplace. Some stayed at contractors for a while, while others simply left for other lines of work. Those at contractors stayed until the work dried up, and were then laid off by said contractors. At that point, they went to find jobs elsewhere.

          When NASA needed to staff up for anything, the contractors were paid to go hire people. The problem is that they went and hired younger, cheaper engineers with no experience in spaceflight. The kind of work NASA does is, for the most part, pretty specialized. Many NASA engineers can find work in other industries and be productive fairly quickly because they (a) have core competency in very custom work and (b) industry has an old guard to give them the specific training in the new specialty. Conversely, bringing in an average engineer with "pick it out of a book" mentality is going to take forever to relearn the advanced basics (I call them that - it's the 4000/5000/6000 level stuff you learn in college; not hard, per say, but complex and _not_ part of a typical engineer's day to day life). Couple that with practically _no_ old guard to teach them the intricacies and anomalies of spaceflight work and you've destined to have a slow, painful, and failure-rich engineering process.

          While the "how" is written down many places, the "why" isn't as apparent from a stack of prints. And though there are huge books of "lessons learned" on many projects, it's not easy to capture decades of experience and apply them real time given the capacity of individual human brains. What they need is continuity, not librarians.

          • The problem is that they went and hired younger, cheaper engineers with no experience in spaceflight

            But that's OK, 'cause younger, cheaper engineers with no experience had computers and software instead of sliderules, pencils and paper! Problem solved.
            • I presume you're being sarcastic, in which case I agree. A computer is fantastic at solving complex problems to a very high precision - far higher than possible by humans. The problem is that computers - and many who operate them - don't know whether the answer is correct, just that the answer has forty significant figures. You need pencil and paper (and a sliderule or a calculator) to find out of the answer is correct. The more complex a problem you set out to solve, the more important is is to know approx

              • The transition from drafting table to computer 15 years ago was a difficult one for me. I'm still not convinced that the change is less expensive, more efficient or produces a better quality result for what I do (process plant design).

                In many ways it makes things more complicated and enables less qualified people to get into the industry.
        • The problem is, there has been 40 years of advancement since Apollo - not just in technology, but also in materials science, production, quality etc. Basically, we don't have access to yesterdays methods because everything supporting them is basically dead.

          Let me tell you a little story about a project an airforce undertook to modernise their maritime patrol aircraft. Instead of brand new aircraft, it was decided that to reduce costs, the fuselage of the old aircraft would be refurbished and reused, al
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by idontgno ( 624372 )

            Eh, what can you expect from an aircraft called "Nimrod?"

            Good story, though, about partially updating old old tech. (Anyone who's had to maintain large bodies of legacy software is probably already familiar with the effect, though.)

            Oooh, ooh, this discussion suddenly became even more on-topic. The US counterpart to the BAE MRA4 Nimrod is the Lockheed P-3C Orion. Eerie, isn't it?

        • by p51d007 ( 656414 )
          Why not refer to the Apollo/Saturn program? IT WORKED. Whey they canceled Apollo/Saturn, those on that program said it was the worst thing they could do. Those rockets were cutting edge, and WORKED. Not ONE Saturn launch vehicle ever failed (the CM doesn't count). The problem is that now, all of those engineers are either long gone or retired. Those engineers didn't have the "beauty" of a CAD/CAM system to design it. Those guys used slide rules and gray matter. I'm sure eventually they will iron it out, i
          • by bitrex ( 859228 )

            The Apollo program consisted of 17 manned missions on the Saturn V. Much of the success of the Apollo program can probably be attributed to dumb luck - the Saturn launch vehicle was by no means perfect and had many significant flaws including the well known pogo oscillations in multiple stages that might have cut Apollo 6 and Apollo 13 short before it had even left Earth orbit.

            I have no idea why people call the Shuttle Transportation system a disaster - the Shuttle program has had 123 flights, two of which

  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Friday August 22, 2008 @02:12PM (#24709295)
    The fall isn't the problem. It's that sudden stop at the end that you should avoid.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Brandybuck ( 704397 )

      It drives me nuts when movie/television superheroes (Smallville, Hancock, etc) catch a falling victim. Lois Lane falls from the top of the the Daily Planet building. Superman is busy battling foes. We see a shot of Lois Lane still falling. Back to Clark Kent, who suddenly see's Lois' peril. He rushes over and catches her... and her brains splatter all over his arms! She was falling at terminal velocity, and landing on Superman's forearms isn't going to be any softer than landing on concrete. Clark needs to

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Chris Burke ( 6130 )

        You just don't know enough about Superman.

        Super Catching, allowing him to safely decelerate objects he catches, is just one of his lesser-known powers, along with Super Ventriloquism [] and Super Hunches [].

        He has an unrelated power which is also called Super Catching, but we won't talk about that.

        • by Teancum ( 67324 )

          One of Superman's special abilities is to locally modify the universal gravity constant... hence the reason he is able to "fly", pick up incredibly heavy things, and to catch stuff like our sweet little damsel in distress (read Lois Lane).

          Kryptonite, unfortunately, has some properties that counter this gravitational distortion and makes space "normal" for Superman, sort of like another physical property like electrical charge that has a polar opposite in Superman's blood vs. Kryptonite.

          Of course this abili

      • It drives me nuts when movie/television superheroes (Smallville, Hancock, etc) catch a falling victim

        (and the person who was falling isn't killed by the sudden deceleration of being caught by the superhero)

        Yeah, that drives me and my friend Gwen Stacy nuts too!

        That said, maybe you didn't get the memo. It turns out superhero movies and TV shows are not documentaries.

        Click here [] for a little background if who don't know why I mentioned my friend Gwen Stacy.

      • by rtechie ( 244489 ) *

        She was falling at terminal velocity, and landing on Superman's forearms isn't going to be any softer than landing on concrete. Clark needs to jump up, grab Lois, and *decelerate* her.

        It's been hypothesized, in the comics, that Superman's powers are somewhat psychokinetic in nature. For example, Superman can carry more weight in flight than he can standing. So in your example Superman is unconsciously using his psychokinesis to slow Lois down before he catches her.

  • I read the article and thought...

    Ohh they are doing Nuclear powered spacecraft tests!!


  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 22, 2008 @02:17PM (#24709391)
    Ever since the Coyote filed that lawsuit [], Acme Corp's QC has gone down the shitter.
  • by eepok ( 545733 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @02:18PM (#24709407) Homepage

    Well, Lou, first that thing fell off. And then that thing fell off. And then that thing fell off. And before all those things fell off, they didn't slow the damn thing down enough to keep the brains of the passengers from splattering through their Dr. Scholl's on that otherwise gentle landing.

    That, Lou, is what went wrong.

  • 'This is the most complicated parachute test NASA has run since the '60s'

    Is any parachute test really that complicated? I RTFA (really) and it doesn't sound so bad. Can someone explain why this is the most complicated one in 40 years?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by avgjoe62 ( 558860 )

      Is any parachute test really that complicated? I RTFA (really) and it doesn't sound so bad. Can someone explain why this is the most complicated one in 40 years?

      Yea! I mean come on folks, this is a PARACHUTE test. It's not like it's rocket sci... Oh. Wait. Never mind...

    • by Rakishi ( 759894 )

      Because they haven't done any (or almost any) in 40 years thus it is by definition the most complicated.

    • Re:Complicated? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) * <> on Friday August 22, 2008 @02:29PM (#24709609) Homepage Journal

      It's simple: NASA hasn't designed a space capsule in 40 years. They've been flying refrigerators^W gliders instead. They need to get back into the groove of landing large objects with parachutes before these tests become routine again.

      And then there was the Genesis probe []. That had to be the weirdest recovery scheme I've heard of yet. And on top of everything, the contractor installed the accelerometer backwards! Which tells you about how much experience NASA and its contractors has had with parachutes since the 60's.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by gad_zuki! ( 70830 )

        Then whos been doing the testing for all the mars landers with parachutes? I know some of them used the "airbag method" but unless my memory is faulty, NASA has been using parachutes for a while. Perhaps not in a manned application, which Im sure adds a lot of complexity to the project.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Bryansix ( 761547 )
        Why even use parachutes? Why not use a lifting body and have that have chutes you know just in case.
    • Maybe because they did it wrong before?

    • Is any parachute test really that complicated? I RTFA (really) and it doesn't sound so bad. Can someone explain why this is the most complicated one in 40 years?

      Yes. It's huge.

      Hugeness, as it turns out, creates complexity.

    • by Detritus ( 11846 )

      The technology can get complicated. Much of today's parachute technology was originally developed in the 1950s to help deliver nuclear weapons by aircraft. The parachute slowed the descent of the weapon from supersonic speeds and could be used to gently (relatively) lay the weapon on the ground, where it would sit until detonated by a timer. Conventional parachutes were useless. They would just disintegrate when opened.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So, a parachute failure in a parachute test is "one the most common occurrences in this sort of test"? I'm shocked I tell you, shocked!

  • It was a mockup!
  • by xstonedogx ( 814876 ) <> on Friday August 22, 2008 @02:22PM (#24709481)

    ...parachute tests fail all the time. That's why they are tested. These aren't parachutes from Lucky's Parachute and Bait Shop for chrissake. They are custom designed and often cutting edge.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Thelasko ( 1196535 )

      That's why they are tested.

      Exactly, be thankful it broke during testing and not with people in it.

      Where I work, we do a lot of durability testing. Whenever something breaks during a durability test, somebody is always upset. We have to remind them that the whole point of the test is to break it.

      Granted, this wasn't a durability test, and breaking it wasn't the goal. The mock-up may have failed to perform as designed, but as long as they obtain enough information to figure out why it didn't perform as designed, the test was suc

    • by msbmsb ( 871828 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @02:42PM (#24709843)
      Additionally, what failed was not the parachute system destined for the actual mission, but instead the parachutes that are used to stabilize the capsule away from the delivery craft so that the real system can be accurately tested. The test didn't fail, the set-up for the test failed.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Red Flayer ( 890720 )
      But, I'd point out from TFS:

      A failure of set-up parachutes is actually one of the most common occurrences in this sort of test

      Well, duh. The set-up parachutes are one of the first things to happen in the parachute deployment path. Consider path A --> B --> C ---> D.

      Assuming equal probability of failure at any point, then of course failure at point A will be the most common; one cannot proceed to B (or C or D) unless A has happened successfully.

    • Well it is considered news, and not all news is sensational or controversial. Sometimes, people just want an update for those who actually follow NASA. Unfortunately most media outlets these days think that they have to be over the top to get attention.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Keebler71 ( 520908 )
      I hope everyone here understands that this wasn't a failure of the parachute system actually to be used by the spacecraft. The parachutes that failed were those that were supposed to get the spacecraft to the correct initial conditions after the mock-up was deployed (free-fall) from a cargo aircraft. Because these set-up chutes failed (which again, would not even be present in the actual system) the actual drogues, pilots and mains were exposed to loads WAY out of limits for any entry that would be attemp
    • Critical to the performance of parachutes is the folding of the fabric. Why did they not take advantage of distributed computing and use folding @ home?
  • by AJWM ( 19027 )

    Wow, look at the capsule oscillate. That can't be helpful -- or comfortable (even without the sudden stop).

    • In actual use the capsule won't be yanked out of the back of a C-17...
      • by AJWM ( 19027 )

        True enough. Just so long as they don't add moveable weights to counter that vibration mode.

    • If you look back at Apollo and Soyuz (and Corona and Yantar ... []) you'll see blunt-cone and blunt-hemisphere structures. These are shapes that have a preferential orientation in gas flow - essentially unconditional stability. The craft in the video shows a rotational resonance that allows it to maintain the rotation - something that's completely unacceptable in this kind of vehicle. Once the parachute helps it regain some measure of stability, the rocking oscillation persists ... on two different occasio
  • A Successful Test! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Dunx ( 23729 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @02:29PM (#24709623) Homepage

    They found a bug! It was a good test.

    • They found a bug! It was a good test.

      This project's got more bugs than a Taco Bell, they can't swing a dead cat without finding one.

      • by Dunbal ( 464142 )

        they can't swing a dead cat without finding one.

              I suggest storing the cat in a freezer next time - it will get rid of the bugs.

    • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @02:51PM (#24710011) Homepage Journal

      True as well as witty.

      If you read TFA, you will see that the capsule was falling faster than the intended deployment speed, causing the drogue chutes to cut away before the main chute could be deployed.

      So this clearly a bug in the test procedure. The test procedure was testing outside the intended speed range. Whether this was at a speed the system should ultimately work at or not, we don't know from the information given.

      In other words, the test failure doesn't necessarily show the parachute design, fabrication or installation was faulty. Of course this must be sobering for anybody who's on the short list to be on the first team that relies on the system.

  • What part of this fiasco worked? The craft itself is clearly unstable. And the rat's nest of chutes they deployed implies some contractor is getting paid by the chute. This program is starting to show how much engineering talent we've lost since the sixties.

    Bring back the geezers who designed Apollo's chutes, and give them a slide rule and million dollars each just to stuff it to the Orion Program Managers who are clearly more politically skilled than technical.

    In the long run this will be hundreds
  • by Profane MuthaFucka ( 574406 ) <> on Friday August 22, 2008 @02:38PM (#24709779) Homepage Journal

    Confucius say "Parachute like girls legs. Best when open."

  • by kclittle ( 625128 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @02:39PM (#24709797)
    Or, maybe, a "screamingallthewaydown" tag?
  • It sounded like one of the 3 (or 10 depending on how you read it) chutes added to clear the airplane failed. It takes a chute to clear the plane if you drop it out the back door?!? I don't really get that part and besides shouldn't you design a drop that doesn't add components that aren't going to be on the real deal?

    • I wonder if they considered the effect of the deploying plane's jetwash on the opening of the first chutes.

      I know, it sounds silly, but just remember the aircraft windshield tests that failed until someone remembered to thaw the turkeys that they were shooting at the mockups. Sometimes the obvious does get overlooked.

    • The capsule has same the horizontal momentum as the plane as it's leaving. It's like dropping a bomb. It's definitely leaving the plane vertically but not so much horizontally. The plane will likely outpace the capsule because the plane has engines running and the capsule is likely less aero' than the plane. But likely not by enough to get the whole thing clear of the engine wash and to get the bevy of observers closer to it. So you drop its velocity (both H and V) with a small chute.

    • Are you volunteering to push it out the back by hand? The USAF commonly uses drogue chutes to airdrop pallets.

      I'd think a big-assed weather balloon type drop would make more sense, be more predictable. They didn't ask me though for some reason.
    • by blueZ3 ( 744446 )

      It's like LAPSE (Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System) if you've ever seen them do that: they can jerk a tank (well, OK, an APC) out the back of a flying C-5 at low level (REALLY low level--like 5-10 ft) by attaching a chute to the armor and throwing it out the back of the aircraft while it's flying.

      The plane is flying straight and level at altitude, they open the tail section and deploy the chutes which are supposed to pull the mock-up out of the cargo compartment. It's not completely clear to me from

      • LAPES is a fine comparison, but they also use drogues to extract very heavy items in airdrops, like hummers and light tanks. The C-17 has a motorized track that can extract payloads, but for something as weighty as a hummer, they cannot afford to have it hanging or hung at the end of the ramp. That kind of center of gravity displacement means big trouble for the aircraft if they can't get rid of it.

  • ...that sucked.

    Back to the drawing board.

  • Parachutes are for wimps.

  • by BadEvilYoda ( 935532 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @03:18PM (#24710411)
    January 11, 1968

    A Parachute Test Vehicle (PTV) test failed at El Centro, Calif. The PTV was released from a B-52 aircraft at 15,240 meters and the drogue chute programmer was actuated by a static line connected to the aircraft. One drogue chute appeared to fail upon deployment, followed by failure of the second drogue seven seconds later. Disreefing of these drogues normally occurred at 8 seconds after deployment with disconnect at deployment at plus 18 seconds. The main chute programmer deployed and was effective for only 14 out of the expected 40 seconds' duration. This action was followed by normal deployment of one main parachute, which failed, followed by the second main parachute as programmed after four-tenths of a second, which also failed. The main chute failure was observed from the ground and the emergency parachute system deployment was commanded but also failed because of high dynamic pressure, allowing the PTV to impact and be destroyed. Investigation was under way and MSC personnel were en route to El Centro and Northrop-Ventura to determine the cause and to effect a solution. TWX, George M. Low, MSC, to NASA Hq., Attn: Apollo Program Director, Jan. 11, 1968.

    Source: []

    • Exactly. This is WHY they do tests. There were other parachute problems with Apollo as well. It IS still rocket science. In flight A-001 (the 2nd abort test), a riser on one of the 3 main chutes snapped after rubbing against the command module. Apollo A-001 []
  • by Kitsune818 ( 927302 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @03:43PM (#24710775)
    The parachute system is so complex because they need to slow the capsule down in stages before full deployment. If you just popped the main parachutes after rentry, they'd tear clean off and the passengers/payload would continue unabated until they rejoin the surface. Permanently.
  • by Sponge Bath ( 413667 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @04:15PM (#24711209)

    We might experience some turbulence, then explode.

  • Holy crap, the oscillation!!!!!

    From my comfortable armchair, it looked like at least one bunch of chutes might have been severed by the capsule rolling over the lines. I think they have to fix their CG and aeroshell problems before they try another drop test.
  • by pz ( 113803 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @06:41PM (#24713127) Journal

    I'm not an aeronautical engineer, so this is probably a really naive question that someone with more education and brains can answer:

    Why, under conditions when you need extreme reliability, do we use parachutes? I can imagine that a simpler design that has lower chance of failure (like just a long streamer) would be preferable. Is it a weight-to-performance issue?

    • Why, under conditions when you need extreme reliability, do we use parachutes?

      Simple - because parachutes are extremely reliable.

      can imagine that a simpler design that has lower chance of failure (like just a long streamer) would be preferable.

      In the real world, a long streamer isn't going to be 'simple'. You need to be able to eject it from the craft, which is going to require a deployment bag for clean separation. Now you have to get the streamer out of the bag and cleanly deployed witho

  • by CaptDeuce ( 84529 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @08:12PM (#24714043) Journal

    I was waiting for an anvil to fall on what was left of the spacecraft followed by a roadrunner zooming past in the foreground.

  • Not surpising (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Dolphinzilla ( 199489 ) on Friday August 22, 2008 @08:20PM (#24714103) Journal

    From an organization that always goes with the low bidder - this is not surprising....

  • THE REAL QUESTION (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Saturday August 23, 2008 @02:55AM (#24716435)
    The REAL question, is:

    WHY, with NASA having so much larger budget than before (even accounting for inflation), and so much better engineering than before, and so much better design and simulation tools than before, and VASTLY more experience than before...

    WHY are we seeing so much more FAILURE than before???

    NASA of the 1960s kicked the current NASA's ass for success rate.

    So COME ON, folks! What is wrong???

    My suggestion: bureaucracy.
    • WHY, with NASA having so much larger budget than before (even accounting for inflation), and so much better engineering than before, and so much better design and simulation tools than before, and VASTLY more experience than before...

      WHY are we seeing so much more FAILURE than before???

      Two reasons; First, today we have the internet, allowing failure to widely broadcast. Second because virtually of the books on Apollo skim over the millions of hours of tedious component and system research tests, d

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