SpaceX acquired the parachute company for $2.2 million because space parachutes turned out to be too difficult.

SpaceX acquired the parachute company for $2.2 million because space parachutes turned out to be too difficult.

Image credits: SpaceX

SpaceX is known for its vertical integration, but one item it had outsourced was parachutes — until earlier this month, when the company quietly acquired parachute vendor Pioneer Aerospace after its parent company went bankrupt. Information first reported the news.

This is the second known acquisition for SpaceX, which acquired small satellite company Swarm in 2021 for a deal worth $524 million mostly in stock. Pioneer comes at a much lower cost: SpaceX bought it for just $2.2 million, according to Pioneer’s parent company’s bankruptcy filing in Florida.

Pioneer provides parachutes for SpaceX’s Dragon capsules, the line of spacecraft used by NASA to transport cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Drawer slides are highly advanced components designed for high speed; In the case of Dragon, the chute is deployed after the capsule re-enters through much of the atmosphere, to stabilize the spacecraft and slow it down a bit. According to NASA, the two rovers are deployed when the Dragon vehicle is at an altitude of 18,000 feet, moving at about 350 miles per hour. (The main chutes deploy later during reentry, at an altitude of about 6,000 feet; SpaceX purchases those chutes from Airborne Systems.)

Bailing one vendor out of the solution — which was likely Pioneer’s fate, given its parent company’s bankruptcy — seems like a strong gesture on SpaceX’s part. But this only points to the real difficulty of making parachutes designed to survive such high speeds.

“Space is hard, but space parachutes are much harder,” Abhay Tripathi, director of mission operations at the UC Berkeley Space Science Laboratory, said in a recent interview. “It’s by far one of the most difficult things, other than a very complex propulsion system, to make.”

He should know: Tripathi’s career includes 10 years at SpaceX, where he was Dragon mission manager and flight reliability manager for the Dragon capsule, and nearly 10 years at NASA, where he served as principal engineer for aerospace systems.

While SpaceX is known for insourcing components, Tripathi said he’s been in meetings with CEO Elon Musk who determines when to outsource based on two factors: that the supplier isn’t a “complete, incompetent idiot” (Tripathi was paraphrasing Musk here), and SpaceX can trust the supplier’s ability to deliver on schedule.

“When one or both of these criteria fail, that’s when SpaceX decides to ask the tough question: Can we outsource this? Can we vertically integrate it into our product line?,” Tripathi explained.

The knowledge and ability to manufacture such small-scale, technologically advanced products is difficult to replicate quickly — certainly not on the timelines SpaceX requested when it was certifying Dragon. It’s true that SpaceX was heavily involved in engineering those parachutes — Tripathi pointed to a recent paper written by current and former SpaceX engineers on exactly this topic, and said SpaceX tested the parachutes themselves extensively — and the company was eventually looking overseas for manufacturing. . Hence the deals with Pioneer and Airborne.

“It’s not a science, it’s an art, and it requires a lot of testing,” Tripathi said. “Unless you have the capital to do a long test campaign and really understand the essence of every little part of your parachute system — the ties, the holes, the reef lines, the stringers — unless you have a very dedicated test program, you’re not going to understand your parachutes well enough.” “It is enough to know the vulnerable parts of your parachute system.”

Update: The article originally stated that decoy parachutes are deployed when the dragon is moving at orbital speed. It has been corrected to reflect the propagation of pitfalls after re-entry.

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