The new manned version of the Dragon spacecraft, or “Crew Dragon,” is a free-flying, reusable spacecraft developed by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), based off of the design of its unmanned predecessor, which continues to conduct resupply flights to the International Space Station (ISS) under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Unveiled to the world in May of 2014, the new, crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft is made up of a pressurized capsule and an unpressurized trunk used for Earth-to-LEO (Low Earth Orbit) transport of pressurized cargo, and/or up to seven crew members.
Crew Dragon boasts several technical innovations and characteristics unique in the history of manned spacecraft:
- The craft boasts its own set of eight side-mounted SuperDraco rocket engines, each able to produce a thrust of 71 kN, or 16,000 lbs of force.
- These engines will be the first built from parts manufactured from a form of 3D printing (called metal laser sintering) to ever fly in space.
- They will also double as a first-of-its-kind “pusher” escape system. In the past, prior capsule craft (such as those utilized during the Apollo program) used an “escape tower” rocket attached to the front of the craft to yank the craft away from the rocket in the event of a catastrophic failure of the rocket. This tower had to be jettisoned shortly after launch to maintain flight stability, though, but Crew Dragon will retain this safety feature for its entire flight.
- Perhaps most significantly of all, the SuperDraco will allow the ship to make the first powered “soft” landings of a manned spacecraft on American soil. While it will still feature a parachute system for an oceanic splashdown, this will only be a contingency plan in the event that the crew and ground control decide that they’re otherwise unable to touchdown on land–which it can conceivably perform at any point on the majority of the Earth’s surface (or, possibly, another planet) with “the precision of a helicopter.”
- The ship is designed to be fully reusable like the shuttle was, with the added benefit of being able to perform ten flights before needing any significant repairs or refurbishment.
- Dragon will be the first spacecraft to feature a clean touchscreen interface like those found in modern aircraft–or luxury cars.
- The underside of the vessel is a new, third-generation heatshield developed by SpaceX called PICA-X.
- The Crew Dragon may well be the first ship to fly into the black that sports an interior that looks…well, like you’d expect a spaceship to look like. With leather seats and a clean, simplified touchscreen interface in place of a maze of buttons and dials, it has been compared to the interior of Tesla electric-powered sports cars, manufactured by another company started by CEO Elon Musk.
Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the founder and creator of PayPal.com, SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft – a private space program. In 2012, SpaceX made history when its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vehicle to successfully attach to the International Space Station – a feat previously achieved by only four governments. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft have been carrying cargo to and from the space station for NASA, with the intent of one day bringing astronauts to space.
That day has come.
On September 16, 2014, NASA announced that it was awarding a Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) contract to SpaceX, effectively choosing the Dragon spacecraft as a successor to the space shuttle, and as the means by which the manned exploration of deep space will return. Per NASA’s press release:
The contracts include at least one crewed flight test per company with at least one NASA astronaut aboard to verify the fully integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all its systems perform as expected. Once each company’s test program has been completed successfully and its system achieves NASA certification, each contractor will conduct at least two, and as many as six, crewed missions to the space station. These spacecraft also will serve as a lifeboat for astronauts aboard the station…
By encouraging private companies to handle launches to low-Earth orbit — a region NASA’s been visiting since 1962 — the nation’s space agency can focus on getting the most research and experience out of America’s investment in the International Space Station. NASA also can focus on building spacecraft and rockets for deep space missions, including flights to Mars.
More recently, NASA has announced their selection of the first four Commercial Crew astronauts, already being referred to by media as “the Dragon Four,” in comparison to the original Mercury Seven astronauts, as they will each be among the first astronauts to pilot a new class of American spacecraft. Of these four, two will pilot the first Dragon spacecraft in its maiden flight.