by Susmita MohantyMar 17, 2022
In an essay Elon Musk wrote in the early part of the new millennium, I remember Musk talking about how SpaceX is meant to counter China from gaining space superiority and surpassing the United States of America (USA). Musk’s space ambition had China in its cross-hair, so I was a little surprised when his company SpaceX christened its human and cargo ferry—Dragon, a nomenclature that sounds less American, more Chinese, even Celtic.
NASA’s Commercial Crew ProgramNASA initiated the Commercial Crew Program1 (CCP) in 2011 when the American Space Shuttle fleet was retired. In a strategic policy shift, NASA decided to privatise crew transportation services to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2017, NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX in September 2014 to transport crew to the ISS2, with the goal of ending the nation’s sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz. In 2020, SpaceX returned America’s ability to fly NASA astronauts to and from the ISS on American vehicles for the first time since 2011.
American reliance on the Russian Soyuz: 2011-2020
The reliance on Russia began in 2011 after NASA's ageing Shuttle quartet was decommissioned. The Russians who co-lead the ISS program with the Americans made up with additional flights of their hardy, reliable, iconic human ferry—the Soyuz.
The American human spaceflight program did not have a crew vehicle to ferry its astronauts to the ISS from July 2011 until the debut of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in 2020. The reliance on Russia continued for nine years until SpaceX Crew-13 mission flew in November 2020 as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program4 (CCP). Designated "USCV-1" by NASA in 2012, the Crew-1 launch date was delayed several times from the original date of November 2016.
SpaceX Crew-1 creates American human spaceflight history
The Crew Dragon spacecraft Resilience launched on November 16, 2020, on a Falcon 9 from Kennedy Space Center carrying NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, all members of the Expedition 645 crew. SpaceX Crew-1 created American spaceflight history in more ways than one:
- Crew-1 was the first operational crewed flight of a Crew Dragon6 spacecraft, and the maiden flight of the Crew Dragon Resilience7 spacecraft.
- It was also the second crewed orbital flight launch by the United States since that of Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-1358 in July 2011.
- Crew-1 was the first operational mission to the ISS under NASA CCP.
The Crew-1 mission was scheduled to depart the ISS on April 28, 2021, but owing to the weather returned to Earth on May 2, 2021. The capsule splashed down, and was reused in 2021 on Inspiration49, the first all-civilian mission sent into orbit10. It was the first nighttime splashdown for NASA astronauts since Apollo 811 in 1968. On February 7, 2021, Crew-1 broke the record for the longest spaceflight by a USA crewed vehicle, surpassing the 84-day mark set by an Apollo capsule on the final flight to the Skylab 412 space station on February 8, 197413.
The story of a Dragon
SpaceX’s original idea was to fly the Dragon spacecraft in a free-flying configuration called the DragonLab14. The original SpaceX manifest had two DragonLab missions, planned for launch in 2016 and 2018. However, these missions were removed from the company manifest in 2017, with no official statement from SpaceX. It is plausible that the DragonLab missions were scrapped in view of the Dragon successor—Dragon 2 meant to serve NASA’s CCP.
Dragon 215 is a class of partially reusable spacecraft developed and manufactured by American aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, primarily for flights to the International Space Station. SpaceX has also launched private missions such as Inspiration4 and Axiom Mission 1. Dragon 2 is capable of carrying up to seven passengers to and from Earth’s orbit. It is the only American spacecraft, currently flying, that is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth, and is the first private spacecraft to take humans to the space station.16
Dragon Spacecraft Overview
Launched: 4 cargo, 8 crew (+2 suborbital)
Dimensions: Diameter: 4 m (13 ft); Height: 8.1 m (26.7 ft) (with trunk); Sidewall angle: 15°
Crew capacity: 4
Design life: 10 days (free flight); 210 days (docked to ISS)
Lost: 1 (in testing)
Payload capacity: 6,000 kg (13,228 lb) to orbit; 3,000 kg (6,614 lb) return cargo; 800 kg (1,800 lb) disposal cargo
(Cargo Dragon can carry 3,307 kg (7,291 lb) to the ISS)
Retired: Dragon 1 (prototype)
Capsule Volume 9.3 m³ / 328 ft³
Trunk Volume 37 m³ / 1300 ft³
The Dragon spacecraft is equipped with 16 Draco thrusters used to orient the spacecraft during the mission, including apogee/perigee manoeuvres, orbit adjustment, and attitude control. Each Draco thruster is capable of generating 90 pounds of force in the vacuum of space. The Dragon spacecraft is equipped with two drogue parachutes to stabilise the spacecraft following re-entry and four main parachutes to further decelerate the spacecraft prior to landing.17
Missions Crew-5 and Crew-6
NASA and SpaceX prepared for the fifth crew rotation mission of the company’s human space transportation system to the ISS. SpaceX Crew-5 mission18 was launched last month, to the microgravity laboratory for a science expedition mission with NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, JAXA’s Koichi Wakata, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina.
The final crew member for NASA’s SpaceX Crew-6 mission, currently targeted to launch to the International Space Station in spring 2023, was announced recently19. The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) named Sultan Al Neyadi to spend approximately six months aboard the space station as part of Expeditions 68/69. Mission Specialist Al Neyadi joins NASA astronauts Stephen Bowen and Woody Hoburg, who will serve as spacecraft commander and pilot, respectively, for the mission, and cosmonaut Andrei Fedyaev of Roscosmos. The UAE astronaut corps has been in training with NASA at the Johnson Space Center since 2019, including spacewalk training, onboard systems, and T-38 training. Al Neyadi will continue crew member training for the Dragon spacecraft and international partner segments.
The future is commercial
To ensure continuous USA presence aboard the ISS, NASA signed a contract in 2021 with Axiom Space to fly a NASA astronaut on a Soyuz rotation, in exchange for a seat on a future USA commercial crew spacecraft. Axiom announced an agreement in April 2022 with the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center of the UAE to fly its crew member in the seat.
NASA continues to sign agreements and award contracts as part of the agency’s efforts to enable a robust, American-led commercial Low Earth Orbit (LEO) economy. In December 2021, NASA signed agreements with three USA companies to develop designs for space stations and other commercial destinations in space20. The total estimated award amount is $415.6 million. The companies that received awards are:
- Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, for $130 million
- Nanoracks LLC, of Houston for $160 million
- Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation of Dulles, Virginia, for $125.6 million
NASA seeks to maintain an uninterrupted USA presence in low-Earth orbit by transitioning from the ISS to other platforms. These awards will stimulate the USA private sector development of commercial, independent space stations that will be available to both government and private-sector customers.
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