SpaceX, a company specialising in spaceflight engineering, plans to start reusing its Dragon capsules again in 2017. This will be the precursor to producing the next generation of the Dragon spacecrafts for crew and cargo missions. Benjamin Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX, made a presentation recently at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS). He went on to say that the company ‘would by reflying our first Dragon capsule on CRS-11” (the 11th Commercial Resuplying Services mission) early next year.
SpaceX’s contract with NASA stipulates the use of a new capsule for every mission. The company however have been working with NASA to demonstrate that the Dragon capsules can be reused for multiple flights as they were designed to do. Reed mentioned that the company had gone “through a process of proving that you can reuse various components all the way up to a whole system…..” The biggest technical challenge for rescue was keeping the capsule watertight and preventing corrosive saltwater from getting inside after it splashed down into the sea. If the company are successful in convincing NASA about reusing the existing Dragons for the remainder of its current CRS contract, they will focus on developing the next generation of Dragon capsules and end production of the current line of Dragons How many of the existing Dragon spacecraft can be reused and for how many missions is indeterminate at this stage.
NASA have also granted a follow up contract (CRS-2) this year for more cargo missions. The missions under the new contract will use a prototype of the new Dragon 2 spacecraft SpaceX is developing for commercial crew missions, and carry greater cargo payloads than the current spacecrafts. The new generation Dragon 2’s will use ‘propulsive’ landings with its SuperDraco thrusters and land on launch pads rather than in the ocean. NASA will thereby be able to retrieve the cargo more easily and build up more knowledge and experience for similar landings for manned Dragon spacecraft. Reed alluded to getting “comfortable with doing propulsive landings with cargo first and then with crew.”
SpaceX has successfully concluded six Falcon 9 rocket landings thereby establishing its credentials with NASA. SpaceX has a long term goal of bringing down the costs of spaceflight and making the Dragon reusable is a means to achieving that goal. SpaceX launched its last resupply mission on July 18th and is contractually bound to use the cargo-only version of Dragon till its current CRS contract comes to an end. SpaceX did however suffer a setback when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on a launch pad on September 1. However, as CRS-11 is not scheduled to launch until 2017, the company has a little time to rectify errors and convince NASA to allow it to go ahead with reusing its existing spacecraft.