The SpaceX Dragon: America’s First Privately Financed Manned Orbital Spacecraft?

By Keith Cowing
March 6, 2006
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The SpaceX Dragon: America’s First Privately Financed Manned Orbital Spacecraft?

Space Exploration Technologies Inc. – Better known as SpaceX – is developing its own manned spacecraft. Indeed, they’ve been at this for several years. Its name is “Dragon.”

This spacecraft is designed to carry not only humans into low Earth orbit – and to locations such as the International Space Station – but also to carry cargo to and from orbit.

While SpaceX intends to use this system as part of their bid to obtain commercial cargo transport services to NASA under its COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program, this vehicle has been in the planning stages well before the COTS program was announced last year.

The spacecraft grew out of initial plans SpaceX Founder Elon Musk had for carrying humans into space. Those plans, in turn, emerged from an even earlier interest first voiced some 5 years or so ago, when Musk initially considered mounting his own space mission – sending a very small, robotic probe to Mars.

Click on image to enlarge

Dragon – crewed version – Aft View (cutaway)

Dragon – crewed version – Forward View (cutaway)

Dragon – cargo version – Forward View (cutaway)

Dragon Docked to ISS

As Musk became more familiar with the realities (and frustrations) of buying spacecraft and launch vehicles, he soon became convinced that the best way to achieve his own vision was to build his own hardware.

Blessed with what he often refers to as “non trivial assets” Musk was already in a position to mount a mission on his own. With the sale of PayPal, his second multimillion dollar dot com venture, Musk now had more than enough to not only mount a mission – he had enough to contemplate building an entire company to accomplish that feat as well as launch missions for paying customers.

While missions to Mars were still circling in his head, Musk clearly knew that he needed paying clients to make his company turn a profit. One way to kill two birds with one stone (in typical Silicon Valley multi-tasking style) was to build an upper stage satellite delivery and recovery system which could rescue a satellite from a launch anomaly and return it to Earth for re-launch. At the same time, Musk decided to make that system part of a more complex evolutionary system whereby humans could also be launched into space – with a great degree of safety.

Originally dubbed “Magic Dragon” (inspired by the antics of a dragon immortalized in that 1960’s song) the vehicle that emerged from the design process is now being called simply “Dragon”.

Visitors to SpaceX’s El Segundo facility over the past several years have noticed an area which is roped off – one they cannot get close to – with some large hardware covered up. Underneath those covers are a variety of Dragon protoypes and developmental items produced over the past several years.

Initial designs for Dragon were somewhat similar to a blunt nose version of the DC-X – complete with landing legs. Driven by additional thinking – and the emerging demands of a cargo and human transport business for the ISS – the design of Dragon has been modified and the crew capsule portion of the spacecraft now sports a more conventional blunt conical, capsule-like design with a 15-degree slope angle.

At the forward end of the Dragon is a hinged nosecone that opens to reveal a standard ISS CBM (Common Berthing Mechanism) fixture, which will allow docking with the U.S. segment of the ISS. It is wide enough to allow standard ISPR racks to be carried between Dragon and the ISS – just as U.S. modules currently on-orbit allow. Dragon is grasped by the station’s robotic arm and moved into place and docked.

Designed to carry up to 7 people or a mixture of people and cargo, the intent is to make the vehicle as close to fully reusable as possible. Dragon is also designed with safety and reliability in mind. Below the capsule (crew compartment) is an integrated service module. In addition to on-orbit operations, the service module can also provide the combined crew compartment/service module with the ability to pull the entire crew and cargo off the pad or out of the flight path should an abort be required.

The Dragon is designed to be lofted aboard the heavier version of Musk’s Falcon launch vehicle fleet, the as yet unbuilt Falcon 9. SpaceX’s initial launch vehicle, Falcon 1, has yet to fly. However, after a frustrating series of close attempts, SpaceX is now confident that they have worked out just about every bug – expected and unexpected – as they can. The next launch attempt from Kwajalein Atoll is now planned for the second half of March.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.