SpaceX is known for its vertical integration, but one area it outsourced was parachutes — until earlier this month, when the company quietly acquired parachute vendor Pioneer Aerospace after its parent filed for bankruptcy. company. The information first reported The news.
This is the second known acquisition for SpaceX, which acquired small satellite startup Swarm in 2021 for a $524 million all-stock deal. Pioneer comes cheaper: SpaceX acquired it for just $2.2 million, according to a bankruptcy filing by Pioneer’s parent company in Florida.
Pioneer provides the drogue 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. Drogue chutes are highly sophisticated components designed for high speeds; in the case of Dragon, the chute deploys when the capsule is moving at orbital velocity, to stabilize the spacecraft and slow it down a bit. (The primary chutes were deployed later during reentry; SpaceX purchased those from Airborne Systems.)
Saving a vendor from going bust — which is likely Pioneer’s fate, given its parent company’s bankruptcy — seems like a strong move on SpaceX’s part. But that only points to the real difficulty of making parachutes designed to survive orbital speeds.
“Space is hard, but space parachutes are even harder,” said Abhi Tripathi, director of mission operations at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, in a recent interview. “It’s one of the hardest things, outside of a complex operating system, to do.”
He should know: Tripathi’s career includes a 10-year stint at SpaceX, where he was director of Dragon missions and director of flight reliability for the Dragon capsule, and nearly 10 years at NASA , where he worked as a lead aerospace systems engineer.
While SpaceX is famous for insourcing components, Tripathi said he met with CEO Elon Musk to determine when to outsource based on two factors: that the supplier is not “a complete, incompetent that idiot” (Tripathi is paraphrasing Musk here), and that SpaceX can trust that the supplier will deliver on schedule.
“If one or both criteria fail, when SpaceX decides to ask the difficult question: Can we get it? Can we integrate it into our product line?” Tripathi explained.
The know-how and ability to produce such small-volume, technically sophisticated products is difficult to replicate quickly – certainly not in the time scales required by SpaceX when it proved the Dragon. It is true that SpaceX is heavily involved in the engineering of drogue shoots – Tripathi pointed me out new paper written by current and former SpaceX engineers on exactly that, and says that SpaceX has extensively tested the parachutes itself – the company is finally looking outside for manufacturing. Hence the Pioneer and Airborne deals.
“It’s not a science, it’s an art, and it takes a lot of testing,” Tripathi said. “Unless you have the capital to do a long test campaign and really know the guts of every little part of your parachute system – the linkages, the gores, the reefing lines, the stringers – unless you have a very dedicated testing program, you ‘ You will not understand your own parachutes well enough to identify the weak points of your parachute system.