By Brian Colley
Special to The Sopris Sun
Any space geeks out there? As an independent artist and illustrator (living and working here in Carbondale) I find the subject of space fascinating. I suppose I “geek out” on it occasionally through my artwork since astronauts, constellations, and rockets make semi-frequent appearances in my paintings. While I don’t always completely understand the science and technical bits of space-related discoveries, I do my best to keep up with astronomy and astrophysics theories that I find in the news, and they often help shape and inform upcoming art projects.
You can understand my excitement when a friend from college invited me to join him and his family a couple of weeks ago to watch a test drop of an NASA space capsule instrument model in Yuma, Arizona! My friend works with the Capsule Parachute Assembly System (CPAS) team as their Deputy Senior Project Manager, who currently focus on NASA’s Orion mission. So of course I jumped at the chance to watch the test and find new inspiration for a possible new series of paintings (or at least, take some cool photos).
If you’re not familiar with the Orion mission, NASA officially announced it nearly six years ago and is a spacecraft designed to take a crew of four around the moon in 2021 (and perhaps to Mars in the 2030s). The CPAS team has been charged with the designing and testing of the parachute systems for the splashdown landing upon Orion’s return to Earth.
The parachute tests took place in Yuma, located in the far southwest corner of Arizona and home to the Yuma Proving Ground (YPG), an area larger than the size of Rhode Island and used primarily by the US Army. Why Yuma? With over 2,000 square miles of restricted airspace (including all the way into space itself), this is an ideal setting to test drop a space capsule. And though the actual landing will be an ocean splashdown, this arid desert landscape does just fine for preliminary testing (and makes it easier to retrieve the parachutes).
I received a personal tour of the Orion model capsule, learning about the instruments and mechanisms that release the parachutes and measure their performance. Later I witnessed the same capsule as it was loaded onto a C-17 aircraft (which would perform the drop the next day). At sunrise on the morning on March 8, I found myself caravanning with the NASA media group out to YPG where, at around 9:30 a.m., we squinted into the blue sky, saw a small white object fall out of an airplane and watched three massive orange and white striped parachutes deploy, bringing the capsule safely to the ground. This was soon followed by an off-road jaunt to see the landing site and talk with the CPAS engineers (and bonafide NASA astronauts like Stan Love).
A truly memorable and thrilling adventure for this space geek / artist! I’m looking forward to developing new artwork based on the experience and can’t wait to share it with all of you. Stay tuned, space fans!
Published in The Sopris Sun on March 23, 2017.