SpaceX has a start-up mentality, high ambitions and a slew of accomplishments, which include landing two rocket boosters side by side in a synchronized aerial ballet.
Boeing Co. is a powerful aerospace stalwart whose expertise spans from commercial and military planes to satellites and outside-the-box thinking: Its experimental, reusable space plane, for example, broke records by staying in orbit for more than two years at a time.
But both companies are getting tripped up on parachutes.
It’s a delicate dance to open up parachutes attached to a spacecraft that’s hurtling through the atmosphere at supersonic speeds. The Rube Goldberg-esque sequence involves explosives, precise timing and battles against pressure and high winds. If done right, the astronauts will touch down safely. If not, the crew can be killed on impact.
The technology has improved since the Renaissance-era sketches by Leonardo da Vinci — and especially since the 1950s, when the U.S. military used parachutes in the ballistic missile program. But advances are tricky, and they require extensive physical testing because it’s impossible to build computer models that predict exactly how parachutes will behave.
As SpaceX and Boeing work under NASA contracts to develop spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, they keep grappling with this tech.