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SpaceX a step closer to crew transportation

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Jul 14, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—The design review of the crewed version of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft has completed successfully. Dragon, which recently delivered cargo to the space station, is being adapted to carry crew into orbit and the company hopes it will be ferrying astronauts by 2015.

SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which launches atop of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, was always intended to be able to carry both cargo and crew into orbit. The Falcon 9 rocket has made orbit successfully on three occasions, and has twice carried Dragon into orbit - first in December 2010, and recently when the spaceship successfully berthed with the International Space Station. The two Dragon flights carried cargo only.

Whilst the first two flights of Dragon were carried out under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program under which NASA is contracting with commercial business to transport cargo to the space station, SpaceX has also been working with NASA's Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) Program to develop spacecraft that can take astronauts to Low Earth Orbit and the space station. 

On June 14, 2012, at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, the company presented its design specification to NASA and outlined how each phase of a crewed mission would work.

The review included SpaceX's plans to modify Dragon's docking capabilities, the weight and power requirements of the spacecraft and potential ground landing sites and techniques.

The Dragon craft has to date landed in the ocean. Landing on dry ground is key to the company's vision of reusability - ground based landings would reduce recovery times and produce cost savings. SpaceX is therefore developing propulsive landing technology so that it can return to dry land. That dry land will be Earth in the short term, but Elon Musk, the Company's founder, has ambitions to fly people to Mars. Building a spacecraft that can take off and land on dry ground is therefore a necessity for future use.

Elon Musk has previously spoken of his excitement for the SuperDraco engines the company is developing: "SuperDraco engines represent the best of cutting edge technology. These engines will power a revolutionary launch escape system that will make Dragon the safest spacecraft in history and enable it to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy."

As part of the review, SpaceX presented NASA with analyses on how its SuperDraco launch abort system would perform if an emergency were to occur during launch or ascent.

SpaceX also outlined crew living arrangements, such as environmental control and life support equipment.

Seven people inside the prototype SpaceX Dragon capsule in crew configuration
Seven people evaluate accommodation in the engineering prototype SpaceX Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX

Ed Mango, who manages the Commercial Crew Development Program, said: "SpaceX has made significant progress on its crew transportation capabilities. We commend the SpaceX team on its diligence in meeting its CCDev2 goals to mature the company's technology as this nation continues to build a real capability for America's commercial spaceflight needs."

SpaceX Dragon grappled by the ISS
SpaceX Dragon grappled by the ISS. Credit: SpaceX

Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, CEO and chief designer, said: "The successful conclusion of the concept baseline review places SpaceX exactly where we want to be - ready to move on to the next phase and on target to fly people into space aboard Dragon by the middle of the decade."

SpaceX has now completed nine out of ten milestones under its CCDev2 agreement with NASA.

NASA is working with a number of businesses that are developing human space transport. NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program is supporting companies with either technical knowledge and assistance and in some cases with funding.

NASA's strategy is to outsource crew and cargo transportation to Low Earth Orbit and the International Space Station whilst focussing its own development on deep space capability with its Space Launch System rocket and Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle.