NASA testing Orion parachutes in Arizona

- On a future mission to Mars, there cannot be much room for error.

Although any mission might be a decade or two away, NASA is already testing its Orion Spacecraft, including the parachutes that will bring humans safely back to Earth.

But what if something goes wrong with the parachutes, and only a few of them work when it is time to come home. NASA is testing that scenario in the desert near Yuma.

From 35,000 feet up the capsule came back to Earth, it is as close to a real world test as NASA can get here on Earth.

"At quick glance, all the systems that needed to deploy, deployed," said Scott McClung.

But now the hard work begins, engineers will be examining the capsule and the parachutes. Going over mounds of data to see if their designs can withstand all the challenges space travel can bring.

PHOTOS: NASA Orion Spacecraft Test in Arizona
 

The test was months, even years in the making. FOX 10 was given access to the mock space capsules that were loaded onto an Air Force Cargo Plane.

"The entire set-up weighs about 33,338 pounds," said Michelle Parker.

Parker is part of the team that is designing the parachute system. Normally the spacecraft would have a number of parachutes including three main chutes. During the test, it was only tested with two main parachutes.

"We don't want to develop a system that doesn't have any fail safe. We don't want to develop a system that if anything goes wrong we can't recover from it," she said.

NASA doesn't leave much to chance. Every aspect of this test is well planned and documented. The capsule has been outfitted with dozens of HD cameras. The goal is to know exactly what went wrong if anything does go wrong.

The spacecraft is designed to take humans further into space than ever before.

"Our goal is to explore an asteroid in 2025 and go to Mars in the 2030's," said Rachel Kraft.

Watching the test are two of NASA's astronauts. Victor Glover, who just became an astronaut in July may be one of the first to fly on Orion.

"As humans, we just have a natural tendency to be curious. If I build a wall right here, we would all want to know what is on the other side of the wall, and once get got over that wall we would be looking over the horizon going I can get beyond that, and it is our nature," said Victor Glover.

The mock capsule is about the same size as the real thing. On a future mission to Mars, four astronauts could spent as long as a year traveling inside.

"That is the whole reason NASA is doing this, is to be able to press those edges to what we know is possible," said Doug Wheelock.

Doug Wheelock knows the pressure and stress those on a future Orion mission could face. He's flown on the space shuttle and spent six months on the International Space Station. Even though a mission to Mars may be 10-15 years away, what knowledge we may gain is worth the effort.

"What we learn in those 15 years on that journey is going to revolutionize the way we take care of our own plant," said Wheelock.

If everything stays on schedule and goes according to plan, we should see the parachutes bringing humans back to Earth sometime in the 2030's.

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