For a decade, the 418th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., has supported NASA by supplying C-17 Globemaster IIIs and personnel to assist with the testing and qualifying of the Orion spacecraft’s parachute system.
That support ended Sept. 12, 2018, with the success of the final parachute system test over the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.
The 34,000-pound Orion test article was pulled out from a C-17 cargo bay to test the spacecraft’s Capsule Parachute Assembly System, or CPAS, which ultimately qualified the system for flights with astronauts. In the future, when the Orion spacecraft returns to Earth, the capsule’s system of 11 parachutes will slow the manned spacecraft’s descent for a splashdown in the ocean. The final test checks off an important milestone on the path to send humans on missions to the moon and beyond, according to NASA.
For participants at the 418th FLTS, it was a bittersweet end to a unique test program.
“The conclusion of the CPAS test program leaves me with a sense of accomplishment and a bit of sadness,” said Nhan Doan, 418th FLTS lead airdrop engineer and NASA CPAS program engineer. “I feel accomplished knowing that one day the Orion space vehicle will use the same recovery parachutes that we tested. Those parachutes will deliver the astronauts safely back to Earth. Just knowing that gives me satisfaction in my work. I’ve worked on this awesome program for a long time so I am a bit sad because the test program is over.”
Doan added that Edwards AFB has participated in the CPAS testing since 2008 with the first airdrop test conducted in July 2008. However, planning and working with NASA began around 2006. The 418th FLTS has conducted more than 23 drops, he said. The airdrops mainly involved two 418th FLTS test pilots, two flight test engineers, two test-qualified loadmasters, two airdrop engineers, two physiological technicians, two aerial photography personnel, and two-three aircraft maintainers.
“Nevertheless, there are many people who also work behind the scene and not directly on the flight,” Doan said. “These people may not be part of the 418th, but without them the program would not have a successful completion. I owe thanks to many of them. We have test project managers, flight schedulers, technical experts, airdrop riggers, previous airdrop engineers and interns supporting data analysis, safety personnel ensuring the test is conducted in a safe and efficient manner, just to name a few.”
According to NASA, Orion’s parachute system is complex. About 10 miles of Kevlar lines connect the spacecraft to 12,000 square feet of parachute canopy material. The lines must not get tangled during deployment. Cannon-like mortars fire to release several different parachutes. All of these elements must be developed to be reliable for the various angles, wind conditions and speeds in which Orion could land.
These elements made conducting the airdrop tests also complex.
“As a loadmaster we are responsible for being thoroughly familiar with the test plan, safety package, technical order waivers, airdrop malfunction procedures/deviations, and principles of test conduct,” said Tech. Sgt. Shane Powell, 418th FLTS evaluator flight test loadmaster. “We are responsible for loading the article on the aircraft and ensuring that it is properly secured. Additionally, we are responsible for rigging the system for extraction, which involves setting up a drogue parachute, two extraction parachutes, and making nine ties using airdrop rigging materials. We then complete a thorough Joint Airdrop Inspection with an (U.S.) Army rigger. On the day of test, we are responsible for running the system in-flight that enables the airdrop to occur.”
Powell said the C-17 test aircraft then flies up to an altitude of 25,000 to 35,000 feet, depressurizes to open the cargo door and ramp, and then extracts the mock Orion spacecraft test article by using an extraction type airdrop.
“The article greatly exceeds technical order limits leaving only nine inches of clearance on each side of the cargo compartment sidewalls. The test is a huge integration of NASA, Air Force, and Army assets,” Powell said.
According to the space agency, NASA’s Orion spacecraft is built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone. The craft will serve as an exploration vehicle that carries a crew to space and sustain them during their travel.
When the astronauts inside descend toward the ocean after reentering the Earth’s atmosphere on future missions, their lives will be hanging by a series of threads that have been thoroughly tested and validated to ensure the parachute-assisted end of Orion missions are a success.
“It is always a sight of awe when I see the NASA test capsule on the K-loader about to be loaded onto the C-17 — it just looks stellar,” Doan said. “Definitely something you don’t see every day. The most interesting thing about the CPAS test is going up to 35,000 feet unpressurized and getting ready to extract the capsule from the aircraft. There are not a lot of people that can say they have flown at 35,000 feet unpressurized. It is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience to airdrop the NASA capsule from the C-17 at 35,000 feet.”
The completion of CPAS testing brings NASA one step closer to resuming manned space exploration flights, which will be launched from NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket.
“We are very proud of this test team and all the test teams over that last decade that have masterfully executed these missions, they have made a very complex airdrop look easy,” said Lt. Col. Maryann Karlen, 418th director of operations. “We enjoy working on many programs with NASA and congratulate them on this significant milestone.