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Inspiration4: What Crew Dragon’s glass dome reveals about SpaceX’s plans

SpaceX's all-civilian mission is set to launch soon. Its Crew Dragon capsule is more unique than it seems.

Liftoff! SpaceX launched the Inspiration4 mission to orbit Wednesday, kickstarting a new era in the company’s history. It’s an era perhaps best summed up by a new feature in the Crew Dragon capsule.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 8:02 p.m. Eastern time from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Atop the rocket sat the Crew Dragon capsule C207, better known as Resilience. Behind the capsule’s top lid, SpaceX has made a key adjustment: a 360-degree glass dome, enabling the all-civilian passengers to witness the wonders of space below.

The dome is more than just a neat addition to the crew’s flight. It replaces the dock used to connect the capsule to the International Space Station. While the Crew Dragon was designed as part of a NASA program aimed at reaching the station, this addition shows how SpaceX is thinking beyond routine ISS trips.

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SpaceX Crew Dragon: Why did the capsule change?

NASA’s space shuttle program ended in 2011. Without a means of transporting astronauts to the ISS itself, it rented Russian seats on Soyuz rockets taking off from Kazakhstan — an arrangement that cost around $80 million per seat and meant astronauts had to travel halfway around the world for flights.

In 2014, NASA chose SpaceX and Boeing to develop a capsule capable of transporting astronauts. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule successfully flew its first passengers in May 2020, and flew two further crewed missions in November 2020 and April 2021.

SpaceX aims to reuse its vehicles as much as possible to reduce the costs of spaceflight. The company reused the capsule on the first mission, dubbed Endeavour, for the third crewed mission.

The Inspiration4’s Resilience capsule previously flew on the November 2020 mission. It remained attached to the space station until the mission ended in May 2021.

But between the two missions, SpaceX switched out the dock used to connect the capsule to the ISS. As Inspiration4 will orbit the Earth for three days without visiting the station, the dock was not necessary.

The Crew Dragon's glass dome with passenger Sian Proctor demonstrating.Inspiration4

In March 2021, two months before the capsule returned, SpaceX announced that it would replace Resilience’s dock with a 360-degree glass dome. Jared Isaacman, the first passenger and funder of the Inspiration4 mission, revealed to Insider that the glass dome is located by the toilet facilities.

The change means this capsule is not suitable for ISS trips now. Garrett Reisman, former NASA astronaut who managed the SpaceX team that developed the Crew Dragon, told Inverse this month that SpaceX and NASA always had commercial flights in mind for the Crew Dragon’s future.

“I remember having lots of meetings with NASA as we talked about the Commercial Crew program, about how we can use these vehicles for other missions,” he said.

With the new glass dome, that vision is coming to life.

SpaceX Crew Dragon: what will happen to the capsule next?

It is unclear what will happen to Resilience next. SpaceX did not respond to Inverse’s request for comment, and the company has not made any public statements.

In August 2020, SpaceX engineer Kate Tice claimed that Crew Dragon capsules can be reused in less than six months. Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, told SpaceflightNow in March 2021 that the long-term goal is to get that down to a couple of months.

The company has a number of Crew Dragon flights lined up:

  • NASA plans to launch the Crew-3 mission, featuring three NASA astronauts and one from the European Space Agency, on a trip to the ISS no earlier than October 31, 2021
  • Space Adventures, a private space tourism firm, announced in February 2020 that it plans to send up to four passengers on a trip to orbit sometime between late 2021 and mid-2022
  • Axiom Space plans to launch a series of private spaceflights to the ISS, starting with the first no earlier than January 2022 and continuing with a new mission every six months

Of these near-future missions, Space Adventures is the only one that is not flying to the ISS.

Will the Space Adventures mission re-use the Resilience capsule, which has already been designed for non-ISS flights? Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tells Inverse that it’s “plausible, perhaps even likely,” but also that “I have no special insight here.”

In a statement to Inverse, a Space Adventures spokesperson said that the team “applaud all efforts in opening the space frontier. We are excited for the upcoming Inspiration4 launch and wish Jared and his crew the best.” The company did not confirm to Inverse whether the flight will use Resilience, or whether the flight is still proceeding as planned.

Whatever Resilience’s fate, it’s a signal of how the company is entering a new phase of offering private space tourism.

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