In just over three weeks SpaceX is scheduled to launch their second and hopefully last COTS demo mission. Today we are going to take a look in detail at the Dragon spacecraft and what a successful mission will mean for SpaceX and the US space industry in general.
Designed and built by SpaceX the Dragon space capsule which has already flown one successful mission, upon completion of that mission SpaceX were the first commercial company to launch a spacecraft and successfully return it to earth. While the initial missions for Dragon are for cargo, the craft has been designed from the beginning to allow crewed missions too.
The Dragon space capsule has a launch cargo capacity of 6,000 kg in cargo version and can support up to 7 crew in the crew version. The payload capacity is split between pressurized and unpressurized as shown in the image on the right. Once the craft reaches orbit the solar panels will deploy from the unpressurized section ( the blue area at the bottom ) and provide power to the craft.
Recently NASA performed a crew equipment interface test (CEIT), this allowed NASA astronaut Megan McArthur to work inside the pressurized part of the craft as part of her training for a future mission to the station. SpaceX also completed their own Wet Dress rehearsal where the fully configured Falcon 9 with the Dragon capsule were taken out to the Launch pad, erected into launch position and fully fueled before the countdown proceeded to T-5 seconds.
Assuming there are no problems found during the Flight Readiness review on April 16th then SpaceX are scheduled to be launching on April 30th, once in orbit Dragon will complete a series of tests as it approaches the station culminating in a capture and docking. For this mission Dragon is scheduled to stay at the station for around 30 days as the crew unload cargo and then place items due to be returned to earth. Unlike the other cargo vehicles that visit the station Dragon will actually return all the way to earth initial in the pacific ocean, with plans to use the thrusters in the future to land back on land.
While the last demo flight for Dragon was well over a year ago now, SpaceX have not been sitting around doing nothing, they have had a lot of work to do to make sure Dragon operates correctly when approaching the Space Station and ensuring a save and successful mission.
In addition to that they have been very busy working on the crew version including testing the unique crew escape system which will be built into the side of the vehicle and will for the first time allow escape all the way to orbit, and can be used for powered landing on earth or other destinations. SpaceX recently completed their first NASA Crew trail where 7 crew entered the vehicle and strapped in as they would for launch, as the pictures below show there is plenty of room inside.
I believe the future both for SpaceX and the US Launch industry looks very bright. In additional to all these activities the company is also working on their Falcon Heavy launcher, working towards fully reusable launch vehicles, have a large manifest of launches already booked and have been profitable. In addition Elon Musk recently said that he believes eventually they will be able to launch people to Mars for $500,000.
In the meantime all eyes will be on Kennedy Space Center for the rest of this month as SpaceX enter the final countdown towards their launch.
The information in this article is the personal opinion of the author and any future statements are based on information that is freely available on the internet.
Copyright Notices: All the images used in this article are the property of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and are also available on there website www.spacex.com.