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Watching a spacecraft fall in the desert

NASA just dropped its Orion capsule out of a plane with two failed parachutes

I’m somewhere outside Yuma, Arizona, in the middle of the desert, watching a spacecraft fall to Earth. It’s like a white teardrop descending slowly against the bright azure sky. Two red-and-white parachutes hold the vehicle aloft, like giant circus tents attached to strings. In the desert where many things struggle to survive, today the Orion spacecraft is triumphant.

The newest crew capsule developed by NASA was just dropped from 35,000 feet as part of the so-called Minimum System Test. It’s exactly like it sounds — a test to figure out the minimum number of things that must go right for astronauts aboard the Orion to survive. Today, that meant purposefully rigging two of the capsule’s five parachutes to fail. Without them, Orion still lands gently.

A white teardrop descending slowly against the bright azure sky

Orion is meant to usher in a new era of human deep space exploration. NASA hopes to send astronauts in the spacecraft beyond lower Earth orbit — the current location of the International Space Station. The vehicle’s first crewed mission will be to a nearby asteroid; it’s next big trip will be to Mars sometime in the 2030s. For each journey, though, the Orion must bring its crew home. That's where its landing system comes in; the vehicle is equipped with five parachutes, designed to slow the spacecraft down after it re-enters Earth's atmosphere.

Thanks to a December test flight, we know that the chutes can safely land the Orion after it returns from space. First, two small drogue chutes open to stabilize the vehicle. Then three main chutes deploy as the first two are jettisoned. Ultimately, the landing system reduces the Orion's speed from 20,000 miles per hour to under 20 miles per hour. The system did this flawlessly last year.

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The Boeing C-17 Globemaster III — the plane that carried the Orion test vehicle

Things go wrong in space, though. Today's test simulates a nightmare situation for NASA: when two of the parachutes fail to deploy. Only one of the small drogue chutes and two of the main parachutes functioned this morning. Orion was made to land astronauts safely in this scenario, but a real-life test is required for NASA to know for sure.

To do this, NASA disabled the firing link for two of the chutes — all five were loaded, said Stuart McClung, a landing systems engineer with NASA, the day before the test. "We basically unplug the ability to send the [firing] command," he said. Orion was also equipped with sensors and cameras, to capture data in the fall — essentially, to help engineers to determine if the capsule slowed to a speed that would keep its passengers alive.

Two days before the test, Orion was loaded into a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, a massive cargo plane used by the US military. You could fit a tank in the aircraft if you wanted. But this morning it only held Orion, which measures about 10 feet tall and 16 feet wide. The vehicle sat atop a platform inside the plane. At 35,000 feet — about when the parachute sequence is meant to deploy — the platform was pulled out of the belly of the plane’s cargo bay, initiating Orion’s fall to Earth. It was a slower speed than returning from orbit, McClung said, but essentially the same altitude.

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The Orion test vehicle loaded in the cargo bay of the C-17

All this took place leading up to this morning. Now, the Orion is landing gently on the desert floor. After a few minutes, a group of onlookers and I pile into some SUVs and drive out to the spacecraft's resting place. The Orion looks like it's almost upside down — it's resting on one of its sides. McClung explains that the vehicle's chutes must have reinflated after it landed, dragging the capsule a few extra feet. It's also surrounded by chunks of foam debris; McClung tells me that's completely normal. This is only a test version of the vehicle — so much of its structure is surrounded by foam. The real space-faring Orion will be made of titanium alloy. It will also land in the ocean, not in the desert, which will lessen any impact damage.

I watch a group of engineers converge onto the fallen spacecraft. They study its hull, then its insides. One hooks up a laptop to an outside control panel, gathering data. They're trying to understand what Orion experienced as it plummeted to Earth. Properly speaking, the test isn’t actually done. It will take NASA engineers months to decipher the information gathered by the on-board sensors and cameras. But their mood today was optimistic. "Visually, I don't see anything that makes me go 'huh,'" says McClung. "I think we're good."

There’s only one more drop test required for Orion before it moves on to the next phase of testing, charmingly called the "human-related qualification tests." They are the final evaluations to determine if Orion is qualified to carry humans. If NASA deems the vehicle worthy of carrying astronauts, the spacecraft is scheduled to take its first humans to space by 2021.

The Orion test vehicle landed gently with only two main parachutes (NASA)