Endeavour at Cape, being prepped for next flight

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs." --San Antonio Express-News

Capitalism in space: Endeavour, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule that was the first to fly two astronauts to ISS, has now arrived at the company’s facility at Cape Canaveral, where it will be inspected, refurbished, and prepped for its next manned flight in the the spring of 2021.

SpaceX teams at Cape Canaveral will remove the exterior panels from the Crew Dragon spacecraft, and begin inspections to assess how the spacecraft weathered its 64-day space mission, according to Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management. “We want to make sure that we kind of dig deep and understand everything that’s gone on with this vehicle, make sure we’re really ready to go, and then do some of the aspects of the refurbishment,” Reed said. “There are some things that we will replace, some things that are standardly replaced, some things that we want to upgrade based on lessons learned, or that were already planned in work.”

SpaceX will still need to build a new trunk for each Crew Dragon mission. The trunk is an unpressurized module mounted to the rear of the Crew Dragon capsule, providing electrical power with solar arrays, and radiators to maintain steady temperatures inside the spaceship.

I guarantee the company will use what it learns in this inspection to improve later Dragon manned capsules. Right now they plan on from 5 to 10 flights per capsule. Since their contract right now only calls for six flights, that likely means the company only needs to build at most three to cover this NASA contract. However, NASA is certain to extend that contract, since six flights will only cover about two to three years, and ISS will be manned longer than that. Moreover, SpaceX has at least two tourist flights booked, so that calls for additional capsules as well.

Either way, we must shift our thinking. These might only be Dragon capsules, but they each get a name because each will fly more than once. It is thus appropriate to use that name instead of just calling them Dragon.


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  • Steve Richter

    “… next manned flight in the the spring of 2021. …”

    are there non Dragon flights to the ISS scheduled in the meantime?

  • Jay

    Just the Soyuz MS-17 flight in October.

  • David M. Cook

    Do you mean to say Mr. Musk throws away the trunk on EVERY flight? Such wastefulness!

  • Michael

    My trivial question is are they going to try to clean the ship up or let her rip as is?

  • pzatchok

    I bet they will fly as is. No repaint is needed.

    But they might add a few strips of color/temperature change paint to the capsule just to get a better idea of what area heats up and by how much.

  • Ray Van Dune

    I doubt it is a simple yes/no question: SpaceX seems to like to let its vehicles show their smoke-marked surfaces as badges of their “veteran” status! But, as stated they plan to remove the exterior panels for inspection of the interior systems, which would probably involve at least some light cleaning to remove any loose deposits from reentry charring.

  • Col Beausabre

    Bob, Taking maritime usage as a precedent, I propose use of the term “type” and “class” for a particular design with individual names for the members of those categories. Thus the “Antares Class Starship, Betelgeuse”. Here’s an example, http://www.usmm.org/c2ships.html. In this case, “C2” is the basic ship TYPE (There were Types C1 through C5) with the remainder of the designation showing its detailed design and establishing its CLASS.

  • Rose

    Steve Richter: “are there non Dragon flights to the ISS scheduled in the meantime?”

    Here’s what the Spaceflight Now Launch Schedule ( https://spaceflightnow.com/launch-schedule/ — generally well sourced and up to date) says about ISS flights:

    * Late September: Falcon 9 • Crew 1 — This Crew Dragon (not yet christened) will take four astronauts (3 NASA, 1 JAXA) to the Station for a standard six month crew rotation mission. They will be relived in Spring 2021 by the crew (2 NASA, 1 JAXA, 1 ESA) of Endeavour’s Crew-2 flight.

    * September 29: Antares • NG-14 — Cygnus cargo freighter resupply mission.

    * October 14: Soyuz • MS-17 — Crew rotation mission with 2 cosmonauts and 1 NASA astronaut (Kate Rubins — the final Soyuz seat paid for by NASA).

    * October 30: Falcon 9 • SpaceX CRS 21 — The first SpaceX mission of the CRS-2 contract, and the first to fly the all new Cargo Dragon, the cargo version of Dragon 2, similar in many ways to the Crew Dragon, but without the SuperDraco abort motors. I don’t believe that any photos of this capsule have been released yet.

    * December: Soyuz • Progress 77P — Cargo resupply mission.

    * 4th Quarter: Atlas 5 • CST-100 Starliner Orbital Flight Test 2 — Looking like it really will happen this year.

  • Rose

    An update to that schedule: https://blogs.nasa.gov/commercialcrew/2020/08/14/nasa-spacex-targeting-october-for-next-astronaut-launch/

    NASA says that instead of flying in late September, Crew-1, the first SpaceX Crew Dragon six-month crew rotation mission, will fly in late October, currently No Earlier Than October 23.

    The given reason is to best accommodate spacecraft traffic, including the Soyuz crew rotation. So it looks like Chris Cassidy will not be there to greet two different Crew Dragons, as he will have been replaced by Kate Rubins as the sole caretaker (for a few days at least) of the US Orbital Segment.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Either way, we must shift our thinking. These might only be Dragon capsules, but they each get a name because each will fly more than once. It is thus appropriate to use that name instead of just calling them Dragon.

    We need a commercial marketplace in low earth orbit. If the government is the only supplier of resources then it is a zero-sum game. There is far more capital available outside of NASA than there is inside of NASA.’ — paraphrased from an interview with NASA Administrator Bridenstine on the Ben Shapiro radio show on Monday 3 August 2020.

    Bill Whittle said something interesting:
    We’re starting to see a world where NASA now is, to my utter astonishment and pleasure, no longer standing astride the entrance to space not allowing anybody else to get into the game but now actively helping private companies who then basically carry most of the burden financially through private endeavors. This is a really solid good combination, and it’s happening right in front of our eyes.

    All three men have good points that tie together. Robert noted that SpaceX hadn’t named its current reusable cargo Dragon spacecraft, but should have. Bridenstine noted that the real funding for space lies in the commercial world, not the political world. Bill Whittle noted that NASA is less of an impediment to space access than it was.

    With the Space Shuttles, each Orbiter having a name, reusability, rapid launch cadence, and low launch costs were going to shift our thinking about space. Unfortunately, the Shuttle fleet failed at all four of these goals. The Orbiter was reusable, but only at high cost and long turnaround time, and the reusable Solid Rocket Boosters were even worse.

    In the early 1980s, Congress declared that the Space Shuttle would launch all of America’s space payloads and almost killed America’s launch industry. Congress had placed NASA “standing astride the entrance to space not allowing anybody else to get into the game.” Except for some commercial communication companies, NASA already had a corner on the rest of the space market, standing astride the entrance there, too.

    Also in the early 1980s, Rocket guru Robert Truax wanted to start a private launch company, but couldn’t because of the Space Shuttle mandate. Ariane and the Russians got a big boost from this American space policy. In the 1990s, China got a big boost, too, because America’s launch industry still hadn’t recovered from Congress’s centralized control takeover of the market.

    Congress had explicitly assigned NASA to be the gatekeeper of space, preventing private companies from joining the team for launching payloads to space or from being able to choose which payloads are launched into space. Why did Americans and the American space community accept this policy of central control over space and access to space?

    Because we still believed that NASA would come through and provide the space stations and Moon bases that we had expected to come after the 1960s. We believed that there would be space manufacturing, and that NASA would provide inexpensive access to space and its exploration and utilization. By 1990, we realized that would not happen, and we realized that central control didn’t work in the U.S. any better than it worked in the Soviet Union.

    In the 1990s, our thinking shifted, when we realized that if we let government run space for us, we only get the limited amount that government wants or can afford. In order to get what we want, we have to run space ourselves, and the best way to do that is to reduce the cost of access to space by making reusable launch vehicles and reusable space vehicles. Airlines would be unaffordable if we had to throw away each plane after each use, and spaceflight is expensive because we throw away launch vehicles and space vehicles after each use. No wonder space is unaffordable.

    A few companies tried to break into the business. Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas failed to get very far with their single stage to orbit reusable launch vehicles, despite — or perhaps because of — NASA’s involvement. Armadillo and Kistler went tango uniform trying to develop their own launch vehicles. NASA was still blocking the entrance. The Ansari X-Prize finally showed that it could be done — and done without NASA.

    NASA and government were astride the entrance to space in many ways. They had a virtual monopoly on ideas to be tried in space (central control over what happened in space), as well as a virtual monopsony for space contracting companies. NOAA and the Air Force were also customers for contractors, but they both worked so similarly to NASA that the three of them were almost the same organization, all three being government agencies under the thumb of Congress.

    For success, commercial space required a shift in NASA’s thinking. A shift in thinking resulted in Ikonos as the first commercial Earth observation company, becoming operational at the turn of the century (turn of the millennium?), but it wasn’t until NASA contracted out for commercial ISS resupply that commercial launch companies could survive. Central control is so second millennium. Commercial space is the way of the third millennium.

    Not only is NASA clearing a path through the entrance to space, it is assisting new companies with technical knowledge. A lawsuit by SpaceX forced the Air Force to shift its thinking, too, so the Air Force is also opening the entrance, allowing newcomers to carry some of its satellites. There are now several companies on the verge of starting operations, such as Astra, Firefly, Sierra Nevada, and Virgin Orbit. In addition, cubesats and smallsats have become popular with companies and universities as well as governments, further reducing NASA’s monopsony for space companies. NOAA is starting to experiment with data from commercial satellites for input in weather analysis and prediction.

    The path is not entirely obstacle-free, however. Bigelow Aerospace was reliant on commercial manned space to take people to its space habitats, but NASA’s slow pace of development of this new market, the delayed completion of this shift in thinking, may have cost Bigelow its ability to survive long enough to open the new market of commercial space stations. NASA still has power to interfere with commercial plans, whether intentional or not. We will have to see whether Bigelow reopens or whether we will have to wait extra years for another company to complete this task. Commercial space will be opening new markets for quite some time.

    SpaceX shifted the thinking of rocket scientists when it showed that a first stage could be reusable, and economically to boot. The cost of getting to space is dropping due to competition, innovation has become popular again, and launch cadences can now be more rapid than they have been.

    Our thinking has shifted, since the 1980s, but I still discover people who believe that we have to choose goals in space, such as choosing between returning to the Moon or going on to Mars. That kind of thinking assumes NASA — with its limited, zero-sum resources — controls space access, use, and exploration. With commercial space supplying the capital that Bridenstine mentioned, above, we no longer need to choose one goal over another, but we can choose both, with multiple teams working on different goals. It will take time for commercial space to ramp up, but we should see far more exploration of the solar system over the next two decades than we have seen over the past six decades, because commercial companies will search for ways to make money by providing space products for us to use on Earth.

    As a major factor toward making that money, commercial companies are competing to reduce costs, and reusability is an important means to that end. Blue Origin, Boeing, Rocket Lab, and Sierra Nevada are four companies working toward reusability. ULA has plans for future reusability, too. Reduced costs allows commercial companies to carry most of the financial burden of their own endeavors in space.

    The shift in thinking that we must undergo is not just the primal gut realization that our spacecraft are reusable thus deserving to be called by their individual names, but also the realization of the potential of these spacecraft to bring us a future that has only been a dream, a future that half a century ago we expected the Space Shuttle to bring to fruition. This is the future I had expected to work in, decades ago, when I got into the space industry.

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