Tag Archives: Dragon

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Dragon arrives at ISS

The competition heats up: SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has been berthed with ISS, bringing with it Bigelow’s privately built inflatable test module.

This berthing also makes it the first time the two American cargo freighters, Dragon and Cygnus, are docked at ISS at the same time.

In a related non-news story, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, which now controls that country’s entire aerospace industry, claimed in a television interview today that Russia is the world’s “undisputed leader … in launch vehicles and launch services,” noting that they launch about 40% of all launches worldwide.

That’s nice for him to say, but just because you say it doesn’t make it so. I expect that 40% number (which includes all Russian government launches and is thus inflated from their actual market share) to shrink considerably in the coming years, as the Russian space industry has shown a complete inability to innovate in the last twenty years. With the consolidation of that industry into a single corporation all run by the government, I do not expect that inability to go away anytime soon.

SpaceX sets date for next Dragon launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has scheduled April 8 for the next Falcon 9 launch, set to carry its first Dragon capsule since the launch failure last year.

Though this is the most important news contained by the article, its focus is instead on the various preparations that SpaceX is doing at its Texas test facility to prepare for this launch as well as the increased launch rate required for the company to catch up on its schedule.

Note that the Dragon launch will also be significant in that it will be carrying Bigelow’s inflatable test module for ISS, built for only $17 million in less than 2 years. NASA, ESA, or JAXA would have required at least half a billion and several years to have accomplished the same.

SpaceX successfully tests parachutes for manned Dragon

The competition heats up: SpaceX and NASA on Wednesday released footage of a test of the parachutes for the company’s manned Dragon capsule.

The footage and accompanying story revealed very little about the test, including when it actually happened, so it isn’t that much of a story.

Video of Dragon/SuperDraco engine test

The competition heats up: SpaceX today released a video of a five second test they did in November of the SuperDraco thrusters attached to their Dragon capsule.

I have embedded the video below the fold. This test, which took place on a test stand with the capsule hanging from a crane cable, was part of their work to develop a launch abort capability for the manned version of Dragon. The thrusters will also be used eventually to make possible vertical land landings of the capsule.
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Musk vs Bezos vs Branson

The competition heats up: Two stories today highlight the entertaining and totally beneficial space race that now exists between private American space companies, instigated by SpaceX’s successful vertical landing of its Falcon 9 first stage.

The first is a Popular Mechanics post showing two graphics comparing the flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket with Falcon 9’s first stage.

As they correctly note,

Both companies did a big thing and deserve accolades for it. The race is on to bring on true reusability, which has the potential to drive down the cost of space launches if done correctly. But Jeff Bezos is working with a rocket barely the size of the engine of the Falcon 9 first stage. For suborbital flight, Bezos did a big thing. For orbital flight, SpaceX did an even bigger thing. In suborbital flight, Bezos may have beat SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket to a full suborbital flight and return, but he isn’t ready to fly with the Falcon yet.

Blue Origin is posed to become SpaceX’s biggest competitor, but they clearly are behind in the race and will need to do a lot to catch up.

The second article is an excellent essay by Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc noting that at this stage the race isn’t really between Musk and Bezos but between Bezos and Richard Branson.

Messier notes that Bezos’ New Shepard rocket is built to sell tickets to tourists on suborbital flights. He is not competing with SpaceX’s orbital business but with Richard Branson’s space tourism business at Virgin Galactic. And more significantly, it appears that despite a ten year head start, Richard Branson appears to be losing that race, and badly.

Not only that, but while SpaceShipTwo is essentially a deadend, capable only of suborbital tourism, Bezos’s New Shepard was designed to be upgraded to an orbital ship and rocket. Once they chaulk up some suborbital ticket sales and some actual flights, something they seem posed to do in the next two years, they will likely then begin moving into the orbital field. They will then leave Virgin Galactic far behind.

SpaceX successfully tests its Dragon capsule abort rocket thrusters

The competition heats up: SpaceX has successfully tested its abort rocket thrusters that will be used to speed a Dragon capsule away from any rocket during a failed launch.

Named SuperDracos, the engines are arranged in four pairs – SpaceX calls them ‘jetpacks’ – integrated around the outside of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Firing all at once, the eight engines produce 120,000 pounds of thrust – enough power to accelerate a Crew Dragon from zero to 100 mph in 1.2 seconds. In the unlikely event of an emergency, that power means the ability to lift the crew a safe distance off the launch pad or far away from a booster failing on the way to orbit. That capability was demonstrated earlier this year in a pad abort test that confirmed the SuperDraco design in a flight-like condition.

A normal launch of the Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket would not offer the SuperDracos anything to do during the mission since their only responsibility is to fire in an emergency to rescue the crew onboard. Eventually, SpaceX plans to use the SuperDracos in the place of a parachute during landing.

Competition for ISS cargo contract reduced to three

The competition heats up: With NASA once again delaying its decision on the next contract round for supplying cargo to ISS — this time to January — Boeing also revealed that NASA had eliminated the company from the competition, leaving only SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada in the running for the two contracts.

Earlier I had said that if the decision had been up to me, which of course it isn’t, I would pick Orbital and Sierra Nevada, since SpaceX and Boeing already have contracts to ferry crews to ISS. If you add Orbital’s Cygnus and Sierra Nevada’s reusable Dream Chaser, you then have four different spacecraft designs capable of bring payloads into orbit, a robust amount of redundancy that can’t be beat. When I wrote that I also noted that I thought it wouldn’t happen because Boeing’s clout with Congress and NASA would make it a winner.

With Boeing now out of the picture, it seems to me that the reason NASA has delayed its final decision again is that it wants to see what happens with the return to flight launches of Dragon and Cygnus in the next three months. A SpaceX Dragon success will cement that company’s position in the manned contract area, while an Orbital ATK Cygnus succuss will make picking them for a second contract seem less risky. In addition, maybe NASA wants Sierra Nevada to fly another glide test of its Dream Chaser test vehicle, and is now giving it the time to do so.

SpaceX Dragonfly test vehicle arrives in Texas

The competition heats up: Dragonfly, SpaceX’s test capsule for testing vertical rocket landings, has arrived at their facility in McGregor, Texas.

DragonFly will be attached to a large crane, ahead of a series of test firings of its SuperDraco thrusters to set the stage towards the eventual goal of propulsive landings. The first test is set to take place in the next few weeks to kick start around two years of incremental testing.

Similar in concept to Grasshopper, Dragonfly is not an actual Dragon capsule, but a testbed for figuring out how to do vertical landings with a capsule, using thrusters.

SpaceX releases video showing glimpse of manned Dragon interior

The competition heats up: SpaceX today released a short video showing a very limited glimpse at the interior of the manned version of its Dragon capsule.

I’ve embedded the video below the fold, but I will tell you it is quite disappointing. Lots of tight close-ups of seatbelts and seats and instrument panels without really providing a clear picture of the capsule’s interior.
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Engineers propose using SpaceX rocket and capsule to bring samples back from Mars

Engineering by powerpoint! Several NASA engineers have proposed using SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and an upgrade of its Dragon capsule to bring samples back from Mars.

The researchers have drawn up a plan that uses a modified version of SpaceX’s uncrewed Dragon cargo capsule, which has already flown six resupply missions to the International Space Station for NASA. The Red Dragon variant would include a robotic arm, extra fuel tanks and a central tube that houses a rocket-powered Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) and an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV).

Red Dragon would launch toward Mars atop SpaceX’s huge Falcon Heavy rocket, which is scheduled to fly for the first time next year. After a long deep-space journey, the capsule would touch down near the 2020 Mars rover (whose landing site has not yet been chosen). “Red Dragon can go anywhere the rover can go, as far as landing elevation and terrain,” Gonzales said. “We’re confident we could land in front of the rover and have it drive to us.”

Red Dragon’s robotic arm would then grab a sample from the rover’s onboard cache (assuming the 2020 rover does indeed carry its samples, rather than stash them someplace) and transfer it to a secure containment vessel aboard the ERV, which sits atop the MAV. If something goes wrong during this exchange, Red Dragon can simply scoop up some material from the ground using its arm. The MAV would then blast off from the center of the capsule, like a missile from a silo, sending the ERV on its way back to Earth. The ERV would settle into orbit around our planet; its sample capsule would then be transferred to, and brought down to Earth by, a separate spacecraft — perhaps another Dragon capsule.

I like this concept because it uses available or soon-to-be available resources that are also relatively cheap to adapt for the mission. I also warn everyone that this is, as I note above, engineering by powerpoint. It is a concept, hardly a real proposal. The track record of seeing these kinds of proposals by NASA actually happen is quite poor.

NASA postpones decision again for 2nd ISS cargo contracts

In the heat of competition: NASA has again delayed its decision on awarding its second round of contracts for providing cargo to ISS, delaying the decision from September until November 5.

The launch failures this year is the major reason NASA has held off making a decision. They need to see how both SpaceX and Orbital ATK react to the failures, as both have also bid for second round contracts.

NASA names its astronauts for the first Dragon and CST-100 flights

The competition heats up: NASA today named the four government astronauts that will fly on the first manned demo flights to ISS of SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100.

Bob Behnken, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley and Sunita Williams are veteran test pilots who have flown on the shuttle and the International Space Station. ….

NASA said the four astronauts will train with both companies and have not yet been assigned to flights. Two-person crews will fly the first test flights by each capsule, after they have completed an orbital test flight without people on board. Company proposals anticipate an all-NASA crew flying SpaceX’s Dragon test flight, with Boeing’s CST-100 carrying a split NASA-Boeing crew. Boeing has not yet identified its astronaut.

Some results from SpaceX’s Dragon launchpad abort test

SpaceX has revealed some of the results from their Dragon launchpad abort test in May, which may explain why they have delayed the launch abort test until next year.

SpaceX engineers are evaluating the results of the May 6 pad abort test, in which the prototype Crew Dragon rocketed away from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad, reached an altitude of nearly one mile, and splashed down under parachutes just offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. Officials said data from the test showed a slight underperformance of the SuperDraco jetpack, and capsule did not reach the top speed and altitude targeted by engineers. But the test was successful by NASA’s standards, and the space agency awarded SpaceX a $30 million milestone payment after data reviews. [emphasis mine]

The article says that the delay is to make sure they are doing a launch abort test with the capsule design they intend to use, rather than an earlier design. I wonder if they also have decided they need more time to tweak their designs after this first test, and thus don’t want to use the capsule they had original planned to use since it has an older design.

Instead, the plan is to use the actual capsule after it has flown to ISS in their unmanned demo test flight of the manned capsule. They will not only be using their in-flight design for the test, this will give them extra time to study the results from the first test and revise the SuperDraco engines.

Dragon/Falcon 9 launch abort test moved from Vandenberg to Kennedy

Instead of using the Air Force’s Vandenberg launch complex in California, NASA and SpaceX have shifted their plans for the final launch abort test of the manned version of Dragon capsule to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The date for the test has not been finalized, but it appears it will be delayed until after the next Dragon flight to ISS, itself delayed following the Falcon 9 failure on Sunday. The test will also be delayed until after the completion of the unmanned demo flight to ISS of the manned version of Dragon. SpaceX will then refurbish that demo capsule and re-use it for the launch abort test.

Update: I have rewritten the paragraph above, correcting my first version, which had mistakenly said that a refurbished cargo version of Dragon would be used for the launch abort test. My very knowledgeable readers noted the error and set me straight.

Dragon launchpad abort test a success

The competition heats up: SpaceX’s first abort test of its Dragon capsule was completed successfully this morning.

The test not only demonstrated the capsule’s ability to escape the launchpad and land safely in the ocean nearby, it proved that its SuperDraco thrusters have the power to lift the spacecraft off the pad, which also means they have the power to lower the capsule to a soft landing on land.

Video embedded below.

Five things to know about the Dragon launchpad abort test

The competition heats up: In anticipation of its Wednesday, May 6, launchpad abort test of its Dragon capsule, SpaceX has put out a press release providing an overview of the test and what will happen.

The launch window opens at 7 am (Eastern), but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen then. They have a very long launch window, and could do it almost anytime during the day.

NASA ISS cargo contracts delayed

The competition heats up: NASA has delayed, for the second time, when it will award its next round of cargo contracts to ISS, pushing the date back from June to September.

Though agency officials said they could not reveal why they had delayed the contract awards, they did say it was to gather more information. My guess is that the agency wants to see how SpaceX’s launch abort tests turn out this year before it makes a decision. If successful, they will then have the option of dropping SpaceX’s as a cargo carrier and pick someone else, possibly Dream Chaser, to provide up and down service to ISS. That way, they would increase the number of vehicles capable of bringing people and supplies up to ISS.

Delaying the award decision until September gives them time to evaluate the abort tests results, as well as give them a cushion in case those tests get delayed somewhat.

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