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X-38: Crew Return Vehicle

X-38 Team Successfully Flies Largest Parafoil Parachute in History
Released Feb. 4, 2000

The X-38 program has been discontinued. The following article is for historical use.

The X-38 prototype is suspended under the world's largest parafoil.
The X-38 prototype of the Crew Return Vehicle is suspended under its giant 7,500-square-foot parafoil during its eighth free flight on Dec. 13, 2001.

A team developing a prototype International Space Station "lifeboat" called the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle successfully flew the largest parafoil parachute in history in January at the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona as they released a parachute with an area almost 1.5 times as big as the wings of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

The unmanned Jan. 19, 20002, parafoil test was part of the development of a re-entry system for the X-38 spacecraft. With an innovative combination of old and new technology and a streamlined development, the goal of the X-38 team is to develop a new human spacecraft for a fraction of the cost of any past program. Plans are to develop and build four operational X-38-based International Space Station Crew Return Vehicles for less than half of what it cost to manufacture a single space shuttle orbiter.

The new parafoil tested in Arizona has a span of 43.6 meters (143 feet) and a total surface area of 696.8 square meters (7,500 square feet).

For the test, an 8,164.8-kilogram (18,000-pound) pallet, simulating the actual X-38, was dropped from the back of a C-130 aircraft at an altitude of 6,555 meters (21,500 feet). An 8.5-meter-diameter (28-foot-diameter) extraction parachute pulled the test platform from the aircraft at an air speed of 209 kilometers (130 miles) per hour to begin the flight test. Once out of the aircraft, a newly designed 24.4-meter-diameter (80-foot-diameter) drogue parachute stabilized and slowed the platform to a vertical airspeed of 99.8 kilometers (62 miles) per hour and enabled the parafoil to begin a five-stage deployment process. During its 11-minute long flight, the parafoil slowed the test pallet to a gentle vertical landing speed of less than 12.9 kilometers (eight miles) per hour.

The world's largest parafoil parachute deflates seconds after it carried the X-38 prototype to a landing.
Looking like a giant air mattress, the world's largest parafoil slowly deflates seconds after it carried the X-38 prototype to a landing on Rogers Dry Lake adjacent to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, California, at the end of its first free flight, Nov. 2, 2000.

The size of the parafoil posed technical challenges for the X-38 team. One problem encountered in past tests has been to ensure that the parachute opens evenly. To solve this and make certain that the parachute opens symmetrically and rapidly, the team developed a revolutionary self-sealing floor vent system on the parafoil's underside. During the recent test, the parafoil opened to its full size in only 30 seconds.

X-38 Crew Return Vehicle

X-38 Crew Return Vehicle on lakebed after landing on second free flight.

The parafoil was stitched together at Pioneer Aerospace's facility in Columbia, Miss. Because of its unprecedented size and strength, personnel at Pioneer nicknamed the parafoil "Sampson." A unique ripstop nylon material, customized stitching and other safety devices incorporated into the parafoil make the parachute not only the world's largest but also among the strongest.

The test was the 30th large-scale flight test conducted to support development of the parafoil, although this was the largest and most comprehensive test to date. In addition to tests at Yuma, four large-scale atmospheric flight tests of prototype X-38 vehicles have been completed at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California using a smaller 511-square-meter (5,500-square-foot) parafoil. For those tests, increasingly complex X-38 vehicles have been launched from a B-52 carrier aircraft at increasingly higher altitudes. More such tests are planned during the next year and a half, leading up to a space flight test of the X-38 in 2002, when an unmanned vehicle now under construction at NASA's Johnson Space Center will be released in orbit by the space shuttle to fly back to Earth.

The record-setting parafoil will be tested at Yuma again this spring and will then be integrated with one of the X-38 vehicles at Dryden for a test flight there late this year.

Want To Know More?
*New Technology Helps X-38 Team Overcome Parafoil Challenge (January 1998)
* Team Flies Largest Parafoil Parachute in History
*NASA X-38 Team Flies Largest Parafoil Parachute in History (February 4, 2000)
*First Flight Test of Second X-38 (March 4, 1999)
*Aerojet Gencorp Awarded Contract to Build Propulsion Stage for X-38 (August 18, 1998)
*New Program Smooths X-38 Test Operations (August 7, 1998)
*In July First X-38 Atmospheric Vehicle to Begin Flight Tests (June 4, 1997)
*First X-38 Atmospheric Test Vehicle to be Loaded for Shipment (May 30, 1997)
*X-38 Technology

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 06/27/2003
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