Tag Archives: Dragon

Dragon successfully returns from ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s last new Dragon capsule today returned successfully from ISS, splashing down in the Pacific.

I had originally described this Dragon capsule as the first reused capsule. It is not. That capsule returned to Earth in July. Thank you to SCooper, one of my readers, for noting my mistake. It is now corrected.

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SpaceX’s flight suit for manned trips to ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX this week unveiled the flight suit that passengers will wear during their Dragon flights to and from ISS.

This is not strictly a spacesuit. It has limited capabilities, and can essentially only be used during the ferry flights. Nonetheless, I guarantee it as well as Boeing’s were developed for far less and much quicker than anything NASA could have come up with.

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SpaceX postpones Mars Dragon missions

Based on statements from one NASA official, it appears that SpaceX has put its plans to fly a Dragon capsule to Mars on “the back burner.”

Jim Green, head of NASA’s planetary science division, told Spaceflight Now in an interview that SpaceX has told the agency that it has “put Red Dragon back on the back burner.”

“We’re available to talk to Elon when he’s ready to talk to us … and we’re not pushing him in any way,” Green said. “It’s really up to him. Through the Space Act Agreement, we’d agreed to navigate to Mars, get him to the top of the atmosphere, and then it was up to him to land. That’s a pretty good deal, I think.”

It is my impression that, because NASA has forced SpaceX to give up on propulsive landing of its Dragon manned capsules, the company cannot afford to invest the time and money on it themselves, and thus do not have a method yet for landing a Dragon on Mars. Thus, they must postpone this program.

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SpaceX launch today

SpaceX is scheduled to resume launches at Kennedy, after a month of range upgrades by the Air Force. You can watch it live here, or here.

Launch is presently scheduled for 12:31 Eastern time to send a Dragon capsule to ISS. At the moment all looks good for an on-time launch.

The launch was a complete success, including a picture-perfect first stage landing at Kennedy.

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SpaceX completes static fire for next launch, advances its Falcon Heavy prep

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully completed its routine dress rehearsal static fire in preparation for a Monday launch of a Dragon cargo capsule to ISS.

Two items of note regarding this launch. First, it will be the last cargo capsule launched by SpaceX that has not been used before. From now on they plan on recycling all cargo ships, and have actually shut down the production line building new cargo capsules. Instead, they want to focus on building new upgraded manned Dragon capsules.

Second, even as this launch goes forward, with the first stage expected to land at Kennedy on their landing pad there, they are building the second landing pad at this same site to accommodate the planned November first launch of Falcon Heavy. For that launch, the two side mounted first stages will return to Kennedy, while the core stage will land on a barge in the ocean.

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The damage and repair of TDRS-M creates complicated scheduling problems

Because of the launch delay caused by the accident that damaged the antenna of NASA’s TDRS-M communication satellite, requiring its replacement, the agency is now faced with a cascading series of scheduling problems.

They are now aiming for an August 10 launch of TDRS-M on a ULA Atlas 5. This will then force a delay in the August 12 launch of a Dragon capsule to ISS to August 14, which can’t be delayed past August 16 because of a scheduled Russian spacewalk on ISS that must happen on August 17 because it involves the release of two satellites. Making things even more complicated is Dragon’s cargo, which includes mice for a rodent experiment. If it doesn’t occur before August 16, the mice will then have to be replaced with fresh mice, causing further delays.

There is then even the chance that these scheduling problems might impact SpaceX’s scheduled August 28’s launch of the X-37B, as well as ULA’s scheduled August 31 launch of surveillance satellite.

One additional tidbit: This Dragon will be the last unused cargo capsule. All future SpaceX cargo missions will use previously flown capsules.

I should add that these scheduling issues illustrate starkly the growing need for more launch sites. There is money to be made here, fulfilling this need.

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Schedule for commercial manned flights solidifies

Capitlism in space: It appears that the schedule for the first unmanned and manned test flights of the commercial capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing is getting more certain.

The latest SpaceX schedule calls for an uncrewed test flight in February 2018, followed by a crewed test flight in June 2018. Boeing’s schedule anticipates an uncrewed test flight in June 2018 and a crewed test flight in August 2018.

While this sounds encouraging, the story contradicts a Boeing report last week that suggested their first manned flight would be delayed into the fourth quarter of 2018. Both stories however pin the first unmanned demo flight for June 2018, which now seems to be a firm date.

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Reused Dragon makes second splashdown successfully

Capitalism in space: The first Dragon capsule to make a second flight to ISS splashed down and was recovered successfully today in the Pacific.

Meanwhile, they apparently have identified and fixed the cause of yesterday’s launch abort, and will try to launch a commercial satellite today at 7:37 pm Eastern.

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First test launches of commercial manned vehicles upcoming

The first unmanned test flights of the manned capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing are moving forward and appear to be on schedule.

Currently, SpaceX is on track to be the first to perform their uncrewed flight, known as SpX Demo-1, with Dr. Donald McErlean reporting to the ASAP that the flight continues to target a launch later this year. Currently, both NASA and SpaceX hold that SpX Demo-1 will fly by the end of the year – though L2 level KSC scheduling claims the mission has potentially slipped to March 2018.

Regardless, SpX Demo-1 will be followed – under the current plan – by Boeing’s uncrewed OFT (Orbital Flight Test) in mid-2018.

The article is worth a careful read, as it describes in detail the political and bureaucratic maneuverings that are taking place to get the NASA bureaucracy to accept the work being done by these two private companies. Make sure especially that you read the section about NASA’s desire that the vehicles meet an imaginary safety standard where they will only lose a crew once every 270 flights. The NASA bureaucracy has claimed for the last few years that neither spacecraft is meeting this requirement, but according to this article it appears they are finally also admitting that the requirement has really little basis in reality.

According to the ASAP [Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel] meeting minutes, Dr. McErlean said that “While these LOC [Loss of Crew] numbers were known to be challenging, and both providers have been working toward meeting the challenge, it is conceivable that in both cases the number may not be met.”

However, Dr. McErlean cautioned the ASAP and NASA about rushing to judgement on the current and whatever the final LOC number for each vehicle is. “The ASAP is on record agreeing with the Program that one must be judicious in how one applies these statistical estimates. In the case of LOC, the numbers themselves depend very heavily on the orbital debris model used to develop the risk to the system [as] orbital debris is a driving factor in determining the potential for LOC. The orbital debris models have been used and validated to some degree, but they are not perfect. One must be wary of being too pernicious in the application of a specific number and must look at whether the providers have expended the necessary efforts and engineering activity to make the systems as safe as they can and still perform the mission.”

To that last point, Dr. McErlean reported that both providers indeed “expended the necessary efforts and engineering activity to make the systems as safe as they can.” Importantly, too, Dr. McErlean noted that there was no evidence that spending more money on closing the LOC gap for both providers “could [make] their systems considerably safer.”

The ASAP at large concurred with this finding and noted their pleasure at the progress made in closing the LOC gap for both Dragon and Starliner. [emphasis mine]

In other words, NASA’s safety panel is eventually going to sign off, no matter what. Note also that the GAO’s earlier complaints about Boeing’s parachute testing program have now apparently vanished.

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Dragon safely berths at ISS one day late

As expected, SpaceX’s Dragon freighter safely berthed at ISS today, one day late.

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet steered a 58-foot robotic arm to snare the unmanned Dragon at 5:44 a.m. EST, as the two spacecraft flew 250 miles above northwestern Australia. “Looks like we got a great capture,” radioed Shane Kimbrough, commander of the six-person Expedition 50 crew, to flight controllers in Houston.

The freighter will remain docked at ISS for a month while they off load it and load it with experiments being sent home.

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Dragon aborts berthing with ISS

Because the spacecraft had apparently rendezvoused with ISS about 15 minutes early today, the computers on Dragon aborted the berthing, backing off to try again tomorrow.

No explanation as to why the spacecraft arrived so much earlier than expected, though it is reported to be in excellent shape.

Posted above the Gulf of Mexico, which appears very calm today.

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SpaceX delays first Dragon Mars mission to 2020

SpaceX has decided to delay its first Dragon flight to Mars from 2018 to 2020 so as to focus on more immediate priorities.

Instead of aiming for the 2018 deadline, SpaceX will now try to launch a robotic mission to Mars — known as its Red Dragon mission — two years later, in 2020, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a press conference Friday.

This delay will allow the company to refocus on other more, earthly ambitions in the near term before setting its sights on Mars down the road. “We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program, so we’re looking more in the 2020 time frame for that,” Shotwell said.

They need to fly the Falcon Heavy several times first, and the delays caused by last year’s September 1 launchpad explosion, has pushed the first Falcon Heavy launch back from late in 2016 to the summer of 2017.

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SpaceX launches Dragon and lands first stage

The competition heats up: SpaceX today successfully launched from Florida a Dragon capsule into orbit while also landing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket.

This launch initiates use of the company’s new launchpad at Cape Canaveral, as well as their effort over the coming months to hold launches every two weeks or so.

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Killing both commercial space and American astronauts

This all reeks of politics: A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday says that NASA it should not permit Boeing and SpaceX to fly humans on their capsules and rockets until they fix certain issues and test both repeatedly on unmanned flights before the first manned flights to ISS.

This GAO report was mandated by Congress, and it requires NASA to certify that both Boeing and SpaceX have met NASA’s requirements before allowing those first manned flights. While the technical issues outlined in the report — to which NASA concurs — might be of concern, my overall impression in reading the report, combined with yesterday’s announcement by NASA that they are seriously considering flying humans on SLS’s first test flight, is that this process is actually designed to put obstacles in front of Boeing and SpaceX so as to slow their progress and allow SLS to launch first with humans aboard.

For example, the report lists three main problems with the commercial manned effort. First there is the Russian engine on the Atlas 5. From the report itself [pdf]:
» Read more

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NASA begs out of first SpaceX’s Mars mission

NASA has decided to hold off contributing any science instruments for SpaceX’s first Dragon mission to Mars.

NASA wants to wait until SpaceX proves it can pull off a soft landing on the Red Planet before committing millions of dollars’ worth of equipment to the spaceflight company’s “Red Dragon” effort, said Jim Green, head of the agency’s Planetary Science Division. “Landing on Mars is hard,” Green said during a talk Tuesday (Dec. 13) here at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). “I want to wait this one out.”

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SpaceX pushes back first manned Dragon flight

The first flight of a manned Dragon capsule has been delayed about six months to May 2018.

SpaceX is now targeting a test flight taking two astronauts to the ISS in May of 2018 — about six months later than previously planned, but three months before Boeing aims to fly a similar test in its CST-100 Starliner capsule. The test flight with a crew will be preceded by an orbital flight without one that SpaceX now hopes to fly next November, again a six-month slip. Boeing plans its uncrewed test flight in June 2018

This delay had been expected. The key is to get both of these capsules operational before 2019, when our contract with the Russians to use their Soyuz capsule will expire completely.

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Used Dragon to fly in 2017

The competition heats up: SpaceX has confirmed that they will reuse a Dragon capsule to bring cargo to ISS in the spring of 2017.

This plan had already been revealed earlier. The news here is simply that NASA and SpaceX have finalized the decision and picked the actual schedule cargo mission that will use a Dragon capsule. What is more significant is this:

SpaceX plans to reuse Dragon spacecraft through the remainder of its current CRS contract, which runs through SpX-20. [Benjamin Reed, SpaceX director of commercial crew mission management] did not discuss how many Dragon spacecraft are available to be reused, or how many times SpaceX believes a Dragon capsule can be flown.

If successful, Reed said it would allow SpaceX to end production of the cargo Dragon spacecraft. “We’ll be reflying Dragons going forward, and be able to close down the Dragon 1 line and move all the way into Dragon 2,” he said, referring to the next-generation version of the Dragon being developed for commercial crew missions.

In other words, their goal is to transition very quickly from disposable capsules to a fleet of capsules that they fly over and over again.

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No more manned Soyuz purchased by NASA after 2019

The competition heats up: Both Boeing and SpaceX better get their manned capsules working by 2019, because NASA at this point has no plans to buy more seats on Russian Soyuz capsules after the present contract runs out.

Even as the commercial crew schedules move later into 2018, NASA officials say they are not considering extending the contract with Roscosmos — the Russian space agency — for more launches in 2019. The last Soyuz launch seats reserved for U.S. astronauts are at the end of 2018.

It takes more than two years to procure components and assemble new Soyuz capsules, so Russia needed to receive new Soyuz orders from NASA by some time this fall to ensure the spacecraft would be ready for liftoff in early 2019.

The second paragraph above notes that even if NASA decided it needed more Soyuz launches, it is probably too late to buy them and have them available by 2019.

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Budget constraints and technical challenges delay commercial crew

A NASA inspector general report released today cites both budget constraints imposed by Congress as well as technical challenges that will delay the first commercial manned mission to ISS until 2018.

When the commercial crew program began, NASA hoped to have routine flights by 2015, but that slipped in large part due to congressional underfunding in the early years. OIG noted today that its 2013 report found that adequate funding was the major challenge for the program. Congress has warmed up to the program, however, and now is approving the full President’s request so funding is not the issue it once was. Technical challenges now are the major hurdle according to today’s report.

The companies’ systems must be certified by NASA before beginning routine flights to ISS. Boeing anticipates receiving certification in January 2018 with its first certified flight in spring 2018, and SpaceX is working toward late 2017 for its first certified mission, the OIG report says. But it is skeptical: “Notwithstanding the contractors’ optimism, based on the information we gathered during our audit, we believe it unlikely that either Boeing or SpaceX will achieve certified, crewed flight to the ISS until late 2018.”

The report has been written prior to yesterday’s Falcon 9 launchpad failure, which will certainly impact the schedule negatively.

Essentially, the report claims that the program was delayed initially by about two to three years because of the refusal of Congress to fund it fully. The delays to come will be instead because of the technical challenges. While I tend to agree with this assessment, I also note that government reports like this are often designed to generate more funds for the agencies involved, not find a better way to do things. If we are not diligent and hard-nosed about how we fund this program I worry that with time commercial crew will become corrupted by the government’s sloppy and inefficient way of doing things, and become as bloated as Orion and SLS. This is one of the reasons I never complained when Congress short funded the program previously, as it forced the companies involved to keep their costs down.

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Dragon splashes down

The competition heats up: SpaceX’s most recently launched Dragon capsule today returned to Earth and was successfully recovered.

The Dragon is the only spacecraft flying today that can return large amounts of cargo to Earth.

Among the cargo brought back from space Friday were a dozen mice from a Japanese science experiment — the first brought home alive in a Dragon. Samples from mice euthanized as part of an experiment by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly also were on board. Results were returned from an experiment that studied the behavior of heart cells in microgravity, and from research into the composition of microbes in the human digestive system, NASA said. Findings from both could help keep astronauts healthy during deep space exploration missions.

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NASA guesses SpaceX’s Dragon-Mars mission will cost $300 million

At a meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council yesterday a NASA official estimated that SpaceX will probably spend about $300 million on its Dragon mission to Mars.

Asked by the committee how much SpaceX was spending, Reuter indicated that the company’s investment was 10 times that of NASA. “They did talk to us about a 10-to-1 arrangement in terms of cost: theirs 10, ours 1,” he said. “I think that’s in the ballpark.” Given NASA’s investment, that implies SpaceX is spending around $300 million on Red Dragon.

SpaceX has not disclosed its estimated cost of the mission, or how it will pay for it. “I have no knowledge” of how the company is financing the mission, Reuter said when asked by the committee.

I suspect that the guess is significantly wrong. NASA is providing $32 million. SpaceX plans to charge customers $90 million for a single Falcon Heavy launch, which means its cost for that launch is likely half that, say $45 million. That adds up to $77 million. The cost for a Dragon capsule is not even close to $223 million, which is what remains if NASA’s guess is right, which based on this rough estimate I seriously doubt. I would bet that a single Dragon probably costs far less than $20 million. Remember, they are nothing more than basic manned capsules, and SpaceX is building enough of them to almost have an assembly line going.

So, let’s round up and say that the cost for the mission is really about $100 million (including NASA’s contribution). Other costs, such as the staff to run the mission for at least a year, will increase this cost, but not enough to bring the total to NASA’s guess of $300 million. I suspect that SpaceX will not spend anything close to $100 million of its own money for this Dragon mission to Mars.

All in all, this amount of investment seems reasonable, based on the scale of costs in the launch industry. And SpaceX’s willingness to invest some of its own money for this mission is probably wise. In publicity alone it is priceless.

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Reused Dragon cargo capsule to ISS within a year

The competition heats up: SpaceX hopes to launch a previously flown Dragon capsule to ISS sometime with the next year.

This fall, SpaceX plans to refly one of its landed Falcon 9 rockets for the first time — and a Dragon capsule should make history by launching on a repeat ISS resupply mission shortly thereafter, a NASA official and a SpaceX representative said during a postlaunch news conference Monday. “I think we’re looking at SpaceX-11,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s deputy manager of ISS utilization, referring to the 11th resupply mission the company will fly with Dragon and the Falcon 9. (Monday’s launch kicked off SpaceX-9.)

I had been wondering when SpaceX would try to reuse a Dragon, and had assumed the reason it hadn’t happened yet was partly because of NASA reluctance combined with the delays connected with the launch failure last year. Either way, it appears that NASA is now on board and that the company is beginning to gear up for that first reflight.

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SpaceX’s first stage teaches them how to land on Mars

The competition heats up: This update on the status of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule also provides this interesting detail about the engineering knowledge gained from the company’s effort to vertically land its Falcon 9 first stages:

The company is also using the propulsive landings as a way to practically and physically test landing systems in a near-Mars atmospheric environment. “Earth’s upper atmosphere is also a really good analogue for Mars’ atmosphere,” noted [Garrett Reisman, Director of Space Operations]. “When you get up high enough, the density and consistency of the atmosphere is very similar to what you face during Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) on Mars. So every time we land, we take one of these rockets and we perform hypersonic retrograde propulsion, the data from which we’re sharing with JPL because it’s the first time this has ever been demonstrated on a major scale.”

To this end, Reisman pointed out that the Falcon 9 first stage landings are really serving as test beds for the EDL systems of eventual Mars missions. “Every time you see one of those rockets coming back, not only is it enabling a whole new paradigm for launching things into space, but it’s also bringing us one step closer to Mars.

As for Dragon, it now appears the company wants to do a full unmanned demo flight to and from ISS before it performs its launch abort test. They will then follow this with a manned demo mission to ISS. All three flights are planned for 2017.

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Dragon to go to Mars in 2018

The competition heats up: Though no details have yet been released, SpaceX has announced through its twitter feed that they plan to send a Dragon to Mars by 2018.

This is not really a surprise, as rumors have been circulating literally for years of Musk’s Martian goals. Nor am I doubtful they can do it. What is important about this announcement is that it suggests that they are now confident that the delays for the first Falcon Heavy launch are mostly over, and that it will happen in the fall as presently planned. With this rocket they will have the launch capability to do a test flight to Mars.

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