When SpaceX launches its Falcon 9 rocket on April 8 it will carry the company’s uncrewed Dragon capsule with it, and if all goes well, the journey will be the seventh successful ISS mission for the Dragon. But as we know, Elon Musk’s company has its collective eyes on the prize: Sending humans to space.
The Crew Dragon, a spacecraft that will carry people as well as cargo, is how Musk wants plans to do just that.
“Human spaceflight is why SpaceX was founded, and we look forward to supporting our nation’s exploration efforts by launching astronauts from America again,” said SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, in a news release put out by NASA last summer that announced four of the agency’s astronauts would train for commercial spaceflights.
The government contracted $2.6 billion to SpaceX to fund the Crew Dragon, and $4.2 billion for Boeing’s CST-100. And recently, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin aerospace company announced it plans to send people into space around 2018.
Here’s what we know so far about SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which SpaceX is keeping mostly under wraps.
The First Mission
The first Crew Dragon is set to launch sometime in 2017. Before then, Shotwell said during a NASA briefing in January 2015 that SpaceX will fly more than 50 Falcon 9 missions prior to putting a crew on the vehicle. There will also be a demo mission without crew and an in-flight abort test.
NASA announced when it commissioned SpaceX that all contracted commercial crewed missions will carry up to four NASA or NASA-approved astronauts.
Two astronauts will be sent on the first Crew Dragon mission, although the spacecraft has the capacity to take up to seven.
The Crew Dragon Vessel
While SpaceX shares relatively little details about the vessel, it has been quite vocal about Crew Dragon’s comfy interior. The company showcased the plush seats and sleek interior in a Tesla Motors-esque promo video. The seats are clad with the highest-grade carbon fiber and Alcantara cloth. Astronauts will get sweet views from the cabin’s four window and will be able to monitor the temperature with the environmental control system. Like most airplanes, there are also displays with real-time information where astronauts can map where they are in space and look up possible destinations, and view the environment stats inside the craft.
The Crew Dragon and its trunk is about 20 feet tall and can carry 220 pounds. All commercial vessels will stay in orbit for a maximum of 210 days, NASA reported. The Crew Dragon has eight SuperDraco engines — an upgrade from the Draco engines in the unmanned Dragon capsules. These engines, which produce 120,000 pounds of axial thrust, are built into the side walls of the vessel, allowing it to maneuver in orbit and land propulsively even though the first mission will land in the ocean with parachutes. The vehicle is driven autonomously, but can be overtaken by the astronauts on board or by the crew at SpaceX’s mission control center in Hawthorne, California.
SpaceX also successfully completed a test of its launch abort system, which quickly propels the crew and the spacecraft away from the rocket if there are any indications of failure. The process is similar to an ejection seat in a fighter jet, except instead of ejecting the pilot the entire spacecraft will depart from the rocket. Unlike most systems that are located at the top, SpaceX’s launch abort system is on the side of the spacecraft.
Scientists are buzzing with excitement (and nerves) for the Dragon capsule to safely deliver experimental equipment, supplies, and a 1,400 kilogram expandable habitat to the ISS a couple days after the April 8 launch. The success of the mission may be another good omen for SpaceX’s efforts to commercialize space travel.
SpaceX recognizes the immense responsibility that the company has been given, said Shotwell. “With NASA’s support, SpaceX continues to make excellent and rapid progress in making the Crew Dragon spacecraft the safest and most reliable vehicle ever flown.”