Status Report

SpaceX Status Report on Falcon 9/Dragon

By SpaceRef Editor
January 17, 2011
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Illustration of Dragon spacecraft in orbit.

2010 marked an incredible accomplishment for SpaceX. As most of you know, we became the first commercial company to successfully recover a spacecraft from Earth orbit. This is a feat previously only accomplished by six other nations/government agencies, and made possible only through our ongoing partnership with NASA.

While the flight was a significant technical achievement for SpaceX as a company, it was probably most significant for the American taxpayer. The United States has an urgent, critical need for commercial human spaceflight. After the Space Shuttle retires next year, NASA will be totally dependent on the Russian Soyuz to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station for a price of over $50 million per seat.

The December 8 COTS Demo 1 flight demonstrated SpaceX is prepared to meet this need–and at a less than half the cost.

We believe the now flight-proven Falcon 9 and Dragon architecture is the safest path to crew transportation capability. Both vehicles were designed from the beginning to transport astronauts. The cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft will be capable of carrying crew with only three key modifications: a launch escape system, environmental controls and seats.

In addition to last month’s successful demonstration, SpaceX recently took another critical next step towards the development of an American alternative to the Russian Soyuz. On December 13th, we submitted our proposal to NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev2) to begin work on preparing Dragon to carry astronauts. The primary focus of our CCDev2 proposal is the launch abort system. Using our experience with NASA’s COTS office as a guide, we have proposed implementing the crew-related elements of Dragon’s design with specific hardware milestones, which will provide NASA with regular, demonstrated progress including:

* initial design of abort engine and crew accommodations;
* static fire testing of the launch abort system engines; and
* prototype evaluations by NASA crew for seats, control panels and cabin

SpaceX has proposed an integrated launch escape system design, which has several advantages over the tractor tower approaches used by all prior vehicles:

* Provides escape capability all the way to orbit versus a tractor system, which is so heavy it must be dumped about four minutes after liftoff.
* Improves crew safety, as it does not require a separation event, whereas any non-integral system (tractor or pusher), must be dumped on every mission for the astronauts to survive.
* Reduces cost since the escape system returns with the spacecraft.
* Enables superior landing capabilities since the escape engines can potentially be used for a precise land landing of Dragon under rocket power. (An emergency chute will always be retained as a backup system for maximum safety.)

Click here to view the video.

Photo of actual Dragon spacecraft after its first successful orbital flight.

While the maximum reliability is designed into our vehicles, there is no substitute for recent, relevant flight experience when it comes to demonstrating flight safety. The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to fly at least 11 more times and the Falcon 9 launch vehicle is scheduled to fly 17 times before the first Dragon crew flight. Given the extensive manifest of Falcon 9 and Dragon, the SpaceX system will mature before most other systems will be developed.

The inaugural flight of the Dragon spacecraft confirmed what we have always believed–the responsiveness and ingenuity of the private sector, combined with the guidance, support and insight of the US government, can deliver an American spaceflight program that is achievable, sustainable and affordable. The SpaceX team is excited about the new opportunities and challenges the New Year will bring. Thank you for your ongoing support and we look forward to helping build America’s future space program.

SpaceRef staff editor.