SpaceX Works Through Rocket, Parachute Problems Ahead Of Axiom Ax-3 Mission

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Within just a handful of years after the Crew Dragon spacecraft took the first astronauts to space, SpaceX is ready to fly yet another private astronaut mission. The Dragon’s first flight was for NASA astronauts, but SpaceX rapidly moved to gain a foothold in the private crewed low Earth orbit (LEO) exploration market by opening up the Crew Dragon for private missions. SpaceX’s only corporate, private customer for Crew Dragon is Axiom Space, and the duo are gearing up to launch the Ax-3 mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida tomorrow.

Axiom Space’s media conference for the Ax-3 mission saw participants from NASA, SpaceX and the Space Force. SpaceX’s Benji Reed explained that his company had to work through key parachute design problems on the spacecraft as part of preparations for tomorrow’s mission.

SpaceX & NASA Gear Up To Launch Another Global Mission To The International Space Station (ISS)

When designing spacecraft or capsules, engineers often deal with several constraints. These include areas such as the heatshield that must withstand thousands of degrees of temperature or the parachutes that must deploy precisely at the right times to reduce the returning ship’s speed. SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has suffered from parachute problems several times, including in 2020 and 2022.

During the conference, SpaceX’s Benji Reed explained that the launch readiness review for the mission would continue into the morning tomorrow. He added that teams are continuously evaluating data to confirm that all sections are cleared for launch. While the conference was ongoing, SpaceX also static fired the Falcon 9 rocket responsible for tomorrow’s launch, and if tomorrow’s review is favorable, then the spacecraft is likely to launch without weather constraints.

As for the parachute problems, the SpaceX official shared that the firm has made two vehicle upgrades. The first is for Dragon, and it involves straps that connect the parachute bag to the door. Called ‘energy modulators,’ they are folded with the intent that they break when the parachute deploys. This is necessary to ensure that the parachute is not damaged during deployment.

Crew Dragon’s secondary, or drogue, parachutes deployed as visible from the spacecraft. Image: SpaceX

On the spacecraft for its latest cargo mission from the ISS, SpaceX discovered that the parachute energy modulators did not deploy correctly and ended up tearing the main strap. According to Reed, this means that the modulators absorb less force, but since the CRS-29 Dragon had parallel modulators, the system as a whole performed nominally. Each fold of the straps is a “few feet long for each fold” and a “number of inches” wide.

However, data fluctuations compared to previous missions made SpaceX dig deeper and “untwist” the modulators on the Ax-3 Dragon spacecraft. It is also working with NASA to test and confirm the twists’ impact on energy modulators.

The second upgrade for the Ax-3 mission involves the joints that connect the Crew Dragon spacecraft with the Falcon 9’s second stage. Two out of the four joints were reworked, and Reed explained that SpaceX’s extensive data review led teams to discover that connection “torquing” was “out of family.” This caused a shift in schedule, but no delays to the launch date. As part of the upgrade, SpaceX “undid the ties” between the vehicles, “put in new hardware” and torqued the ties.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon set to fly to the ISS in 2023. Image: SpaceX

The Ax-3 mission will take a crew of four to the space station. Along with SpaceX, Axiom Space is also working with NASA, and the space agency is responsible for providing access to the ISS. Lift off will occur at 5:11 p.m. Eastern time tomorrow, according to the current schedule, with the spacecraft slated to dock with the ISS roughly 36 hours later.

The astronauts are slated to conduct dozens of experiments on the space station for their space agencies and private companies.

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