SpaceX has successfully tested four large parachutes that will eventually be used to help lower its crewed Dragon spacecraft back to Earth. NASA published a video of the drop test today, which shows the four large parachutes deploying and slowing a mock spacecraft beneath them.
NASA has been paying SpaceX to make cargo runs to and from the International Space Station since 2012. Despite one big loss, the contract has gone so well that NASA is going to use SpaceX (and Boeing) to shuttle astronauts to and from the space station in the coming years. SpaceX is building a crew-rated version of its Dragon spacecraft for this express purpose.
But before that can happen, the company has a long series of milestone tests it needs to pass, and the parachute test was the most recent. Using a giant weight in place of an actual spacecraft, the company dropped the test rig from a C-130 aircraft thousands of feet in the air over Coolidge, Arizona. All four parachutes properly deployed.
SpaceX and Boeing will perform the first crewed water landings in decades
Though the test rig settled down somewhere in the desert, the current plan is to have the Dragon crew capsule splash down in the ocean. It will be the first time that astronauts have landed in water since the late 1970s. Those first missions are slated for late 2017 or early 2018.
At the same time that SpaceX is testing for a parachute-assisted landing in the water, it's also testing propulsive landings. Just last week, the company published a video of the Dragon crew spacecraft successfully hovering in place using the eight built-in SuperDraco rocket engines. Despite what NASA wants, SpaceX's goal is to use these engines to safely lower returning crews onto landing pads, and save the parachutes for emergencies only.