Tag Archives: Dragon

SpaceX’s first test crew Dragon capsule arrives in Florida

Capitalism in space: The first man-rated Dragon capsule set to fly has arrived in Florida to be prepped for launch.

Even though the vehicle is called a “Crew Dragon,” this Dragon won’t carry crew on its first flight. Instead, it’s due to make an uncrewed practice run to the space station during what’s known as Demonstration Mission 1, or DM-1.

Before this week’s shipment to Florida, the Dragon underwent thermal vacuum tests as well as acoustic tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio. Today SpaceX showed off a picture of the Crew Dragon, which is a redesigned, beefed-up version of its robotic cargo-carrying Dragon, via Twitter and Instagram.

NASA’s current schedule calls for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch the DM-1 mission next month from Kennedy Space Center. However, that schedule is dependent not only on the pace of preparations, but also on the timetable for station arrivals and departures.

SpaceX is clearly on schedule to fly the first unmanned test flight in September, and the first manned flight in January 2019. And once that manned flight take place, I can see no reason why operational flights shouldn’t follow soon thereafter.

Yet, NASA said earlier this week that those operational flights will almost certainly be delayed until 2020, mainly because SpaceX might not be able to get the paperwork filled out fast enough.

Here’s my prediction: If SpaceX flies that manned mission in early 2019, expect their operational flights to begin soon thereafter, not in 2020. NASA will have no choice but to accept the capsule and begin flights.

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GAO report indicates NASA forcing more delays in commercial crew

A Government Accountability Office report released today suggests that NASA’s complex certification requirements will cause further delays in first operational missions of the commercial crew capsules of Boeing and SpaceX.

The report shows when NASA believes Boeing and SpaceX will each have completed a single non-crewed test flight, a test flight with crew, and then undergo a certification process to become ready for operational flights. This is known as the “certification milestone.”

Based on NASA’s “schedule risk analysis” from April, the agency estimates that Boeing will reach this milestone sometime between May 1, 2019, and August 30, 2020. For SpaceX, the estimated range is August 1, 2019, and November 30, 2020. The analysis’ average certification date was December, 2019, for Boeing and January, 2020, for SpaceX.

These are obviously razor-thin margins, but the new report also indicates that Boeing is ahead in submitting paperwork needed for approval of its various flight systems and processes. This is consistent with what independent sources have told Ars, that Boeing is more familiar with NASA and better positioned to comply with its complex certification processes. [emphasis mine]

This does not surprise me. From the beginning of commercial crew there have been people at NASA working to slow SpaceX down so as to not embarrass Boeing as well as SLS/Orion. By using the “complex certification process,” which really has little to do with engineering and everything to do with bureaucracy and power politics, NASA has effectively succeeded in preventing SpaceX from getting off the ground. The company could have flown a manned Dragon at least a year ago, if NASA had not stood in the way and imposed numerous safety demands, some of which make no sense.

Meanwhile, NASA’s bureaucracy and certification process has created a situation where neither company might be ready to fly when the ticketed flights on Russian Soyuz capsules end. To solve this gap the agency is actually thinking of stretching out ISS missions so it doesn’t have to fly ferry missions as much. While longer missions to ISS make sense — if your goal is to learn how to get to Mars — this isn’t why NASA is thinking of doing it. Instead, it is doing it so that it can make private space, especially SpaceX, look bad.

All in all, NASA’s management seems entirely uninterested in real space exploration, and the risks it entails. Instead, they are focused on power politics and serving the needs of the big space contractors that they have worked with for decades, accomplishing little while spending a lot of taxpayer dollars.

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First manned Dragon capsule completes thermal vacuum tests

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s first manned Dragon capsule has completed its thermal vacuum tests ahead of its test orbital flight, presently scheduled for September of this year.

There have been hints that this schedule could be further delayed. That neither SpaceX nor NASA were willing to comment about the results of the thermal tests could be a cause for concern, or it could simply be that they have not yet digested the material and wish to do so first before commenting.

I suspect a more firm schedule will be announced before the end of this month.

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Dragon cargo fees to rise, due to NASA demands

A government audit has found that the fees that SpaceX charges for its Dragon cargo missions to ISS will rise as much as 50%, and the cause of that price rise is almost entirely due to NASA redesign demands.

[T]he auditors pinned much of the blame on NASA for the increase. They also emphasized that the program still seems like a good deal for lowering launch costs. Auditors cited NASA for missing opportunities to cut redundancies and bargain on pricing, and noted that the agency forced SpaceX to (expensively) redesign its Dragon spaceship from the bottom up.

The report did hint, however, that SpaceX has done some reckoning as the startup has matured. “[SpaceX] also indicated that their CRS-2 pricing reflected a better understanding of the costs involved after several years of experience with cargo resupply missions,” the auditors wrote. (A SpaceX representative declined to comment on the report.)

None of this is a surprise. There are factions in NASA that have been working for the past decade to stymie or defeat the arrival of privately built and owned spacecraft like Dragon, as it makes the NASA-built spacecraft like Orion look bad. By demanding redesigns that raise the cost for Dragon, these factions gain ammunition to attack it. I guarantee we will see op-eds doing exactly that in the next year.

No matter. In the end the private market still does it better and cheaper than the government, as the audit found.

Despite the cost increases, the report ultimately called the CRS contracts with private companies “positive steps” for NASA — especially since the agency could find discounts by launching cargo on used SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosters. “NASA’s continued commitment to the commercial space industry also helps spur innovations in the commercial launch vehicle market,” the auditors said.

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A NASA astronaut’s detailed look at Dragon and Starliner

Link here. Lots of interesting details about both spacecraft from an experienced astronaut’s perspective.

The Commercial Crew program will launch uncrewed ships first. SpaceX is aiming to do that in September and Boeing in October. If successful, crewed launches will follow on December 31 (Boeing) and January 17 (SpaceX).

“We’ve gotten into the cockpit in both spacecraft. We’ve run through parts of the profile, from launch to rendezvous docking, un-docking, and [atmospheric] entry. But everything’s not been tied up, not quite yet,” Williams said. She didn’t say which company’s spaceship is her favorite.

In fact, crewed launch dates may slip to mid-2019. Williams said she expects NASA to announce her official mission selection this summer, and from there about a year of more deliberate mission training will follow.

This is a delay from the previously planned summer launches. This had been expected, but it also looks like both companies are trying hard to get things off the ground this year.

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Dragon returns successfully from ISS

Capitalism in space: A reused Dragon capsule successfully splashed down on Saturday, returning after a month-long cargo mission to ISS.

The successful splashdown Saturday marked the conclusion of SpaceX’s 14th resupply mission to the space station under the space transport company’s more than $3 billion, 20-launch cargo contract with NASA. It was the third round-trip cargo flight with a reused Dragon capsule.

I await the first time one of these capsules completes its third flight into space. That will be significant.

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NASA expands first manned Starliner mission

NASA has modified its contract with Boeing to allow its first manned Starliner test mission to add an astronaut and extend the mission’s length so that it more resembles an operational flight to ISS.

NASA is considering adding a third crew member to the Starliner’s “Crew Flight Test” and could extend its trip to the International Space Station from two weeks up to six months, the length of a typical ISS expedition. The potential changes, outlined in a contract modification with Boeing, could help NASA maintain its presence on the International Space Station through 2019 and beyond.

NASA’s last purchased ride aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, upon which the U.S. has relied for access to the ISS since the shuttle’s retirement in 2011, is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2019.
Boeing’s new Starliner spacesuit features lightweight fabric, slim gloves and sneaker-like boots. But Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon may not be certified to fly four-person crews until after that. “This contract modification provides NASA with additional schedule margin if needed,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of human spaceflight operations at NASA headquarters in Washington. “We appreciate Boeing’s willingness to evolve its flight to ensure we have continued access to space for our astronauts.”

Doing this makes some sense, but I wonder why NASA chose to do it with Boeing’s Starliner instead of SpaceX’s Dragon. Starliner has never flown in any form, while the manned Dragon is based on SpaceX’s well tested design.

I suspect NASA will soon modify its SpaceX contract as well. It makes sense. Once you put humans on board, you might as well give yourself the option to do a full mission.

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SpaceX launches Dragon to ISS

SpaceX successfully launched a reused Dragon capsule into orbit yesterday, once again using a reused first stage.

To show you how routine this has become, I myself completely forgot the launch was happening yesterday, and spent that time doing my monthly bills. Oy.

They did not attempt to recover the first stage, using it instead to do re-entry flight tests as it landed in the Atlantic Ocean. I suspect they have decided that it is not cost effective to recover used first stages, and would rather dump them in the ocean than pay the cost to recover, test, and store them.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

10 China
7 SpaceX
4 Russia
3 Japan
3 ULA

China and the U.S. continue to be tied in the national standings.

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First commercial crew flights still set for 2018 with chance of delay

NASA’s manager of the commercial crew program provided an update to the agency’s advisory board on Monday, noting that both SpaceX and Boeing are making good progress to their scheduled first flights late this year.

The bottom line however is that there is a good chance the flights will slip into 2019, though based on the update it appears to me that the flights will not slip that much beyond that.

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SpaceX pushes back its manned flights

The first launch dates for SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule have apparently been rescheduled, with the new dates August 2018 for the first unmanned demo flight and December 2018 for the first manned flight.

This is a four month delay from the previous announced dates of April and August.

Hat tip to reader Kirk Hilliard.

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SpaceX leases space at Kennedy for manned Dragon

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has now leased a former satellite processing facility at Kennedy from the Air Force for use in preparing its manned Dragon capsule for flight.

This financial commitment suggests to me that SpaceX is aiming for a 2018 launch, which also makes me believe their April schedule for the first unmanned test flight is real.

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First flights of commercial manned capsules in 2018

According to a NASA presentation last month, it appears that both SpaceX and Boeing are aiming to complete both their first unmanned and manned flights this coming year.

The schedules remain tight, but SpaceX plans to do its first unmanned demo mission in April, followed by a manned flight in August, while Boeing’s first unmanned flight is set for August, with the first manned flight in November. If these schedules happen 2018 should be quite an exciting year.

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SpaceX launches Dragon and lands 1st stage

Capitalism in space: SpaceX this morning successfully launched a previously used Dragon cargo freighter to ISS as well as once again successfully landing the previously used first stage.

This was the first time NASA agreed to the use of a previously launched first stage. With the first stage and capsule both reused, only the second stage and one out of 10 Merlin engines was new and will not be available for further reuse.

I have embedded the launch video below the fold.

The standings for the most launches in 2017, as of today:

28 United States
18 Russia
17 SpaceX
15 China

Note that I am counting Soyuz launches for Arianespace out of French Guiana under Arianespace, not Russia. Also, the U.S. total includes SpaceX. I have separated SpaceX out to show how a single American company is competing aggressively with whole nations.
» Read more

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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]:
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