Dragon: A crew and cargo ferry to the space station

In the third essay in our space design series, STIRship Enterprise, Dr Susmita Mohanty focuses on the spacecraft Dragon by SpaceX and NASA.

by Susmita MohantyPublished on : Nov 12, 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 Program

NASA 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.
SpaceX Crew-1 mission Video: Courtesy of SpaceX via Youtube

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

  • The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour approaches the International Space Station | Crew Dragon | SpaceX | STIRworld
    The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour approaches the International Space Station Image: Courtesy of Official SpaceX Photos on Flickr, Courtesy of Creative Commons

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.

  • A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Dragon Endurance spacecraft for the Crew-3 mission is vertical at Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 27, 2021. Also in view is the crew access arm. Endurance will carry astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission, which is targeted to launch no earlier than September 29, 2022 | Crew Dragon | SpaceX | STIRworld
    A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Dragon Endurance spacecraft for the Crew-3 mission is vertical at Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 27, 2021. Also in view is the crew access arm. Endurance will carry astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission, which is targeted to launch no earlier than September 29, 2022 Image: Courtesy of Official SpaceX Photos on Flickr, Courtesy of Creative Commons
  • Dragon and Falcon 9 ready for launch at Launch Complex 39A | Crew Dragon | SpaceX | STIRworld
    Dragon and Falcon 9 ready for launch at Launch Complex 39A Image: Courtesy of Official SpaceX Photos on Flickr, Courtesy of Creative Commons
  • Propulsive hover tests of  Dragon 2 vehicle that can carry crew and cargo | Crew Dragon | SpaceX | STIRworld
    Propulsive hover tests of Dragon 2 vehicle that can carry crew and cargo Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Official SpaceX Photos, Creative Commons

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 Dragon capsule, also known as the pressurised section | Crew Dragon | NASA | STIRworld
    The Dragon capsule, also known as the pressurised section Image: Courtesy of Official SpaceX Photos on Flickr, Courtesy of Creative Commons
  • Pad Abort Vehicle of Crew Dragon | Crew Dragon | SpaceX | STIRworld
    Pad Abort Vehicle of Crew Dragon Image: Courtesy of Official SpaceX Photos on Flickr, Courtesy of Creative Commons
  • Interior of Crew Dragon | Crew Dragon | SpaceX | STIRworld
    Interior of Crew Dragon Image: Courtesy of Official SpaceX Photos on Flickr, Courtesy of Creative Commons
  • Dragon on pad at Launch Complex 39A | Crew Dragon | SpaceX | STIRworld
    Dragon on pad at Launch Complex 39A Image: Courtesy of Official SpaceX Photos on Flickr, Courtesy of Creative Commons

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.

References

1.https://www.nasa.gov/exploration/commercial/crew/index.html
2.https://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/september/nasa-chooses-american-companies-to-transport-us-astronauts-to-international
3.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX_Crew-1
4.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_Crew_Program
5.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expedition_64
6.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX_Dragon_2
7.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crew_Dragon_Resilience
8.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-135
9.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inspiration4
10.https://inspiration4.com/
11.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_8
12.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skylab_4
13.https://spaceflightnow.com/2021/04/05/crew-1-dragon-relocation-mission-status-center/
14.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX_Dragon#Variants_and_derivatives
15.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX_Dragon_2
16.https://www.spacex.com/vehicles/dragon/
17.https://www.spacex.com/vehicles/dragon/
18.https://blogs.nasa.gov/commercialcrew/2022/07/21/headline-nasa-spacex-provide-crew-5-hardware-operations-status/
19.https://blogs.nasa.gov/commercialcrew/2022/07/25/mission-specialist-assigned-to-crew-6-space-station-mission/ 20.https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-selects-companies-to-develop-commercial-destinations-in-space

STIRship Enterprise: a special series on space architecture and design
In this flagship series, spaceship designer and entrepreneur Dr Susmita Mohanty travels the cosmos with an expert’s lens to decode the future of life in space through design. STIRship Enterprise is a collection of essays to introduce terrestrial architects, engineers and designers to the world of Space Architecture + Design.

What do you think?

About Author

Recommended

LOAD MORE
see more articles
4021,4086,4029,3977,4116

Keep it stirring

get regular updates SIGN UP

This site uses cookies to offer you an improved and personalised experience. If you continue to browse, we will assume your consent for the same.
LEARN MORE AGREE