NASA drops replica Orion spacecraft to test parachutes

YUMA, Ariz. — NASA on Friday successfully dropped a replica Orion spacecraft from an Air Force transport aircraft to a southwestern Arizona desert site to test the craft's ability to cope with a partial parachute failure.

The test used two of Orion's three main parachutes to simulate the failure of the third and still sufficiently slowed the spacecraft for a landing.

Previous attempts were thwarted by a failure of the C-17 plane's cargo doors to open at the drop altitude of 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) on Wednesday and by high winds on Thursday.

Jim McMichael, a NASA systems engineer, said the 10-ton (10.16-metric ton) replica was "sitting perfectly upright" after bouncing once when it landed at the Yuma Proving Ground, an Army installation.

Actual Orion landings will involve ocean splashdowns.

The Orion spacecraft is expected to carry as many as four astronauts deeper into space than anyone has ever gone before.

In Friday's test, two small "drogue" chutes successfully deployed, stabilized the replica's fall and then were cast off before deployment of the orange-and-white main chutes that then slowed the descent, McMichael said.

The landing spot was on hard desert soil, not a plowed and leveled area where NASA hoped the unit would land, McMichael said.

Still, "it went really well," McMichael said. "We get a little bit of a bounce. It just lands and digs a little bit of a hole and lands and sits in the desert."

McMichael said the replica is the same weight and width as the actual spacecraft but shorter so it would fit in the C-17.

A NASA team planned to pick up the parachutes and truck them and the replica to the Yuma airport used as the staging site for the parachute testing.

The test Friday was the fifth of a series of eight Orion parachute tests that began in 2016 and that will end in late 2018, he said.