The Crew Dragon: New Age in Spacecraft?

Sophia Eckhart, Journalist

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Did you know that recently, for the first time in 8 years a rocket launched on US soil? The Crew Dragon’s unmanned test launch was on March 1st, 11:49 PST. The capsule was mounted onto a Falcon 9 rocket and was launched on NASA’s historic launch site, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. During the duration of the mission, called Demo-1, the Crew Dragon will remain docked at the ISS (International Space Station) for five days. Inside, the capsule has 400 pounds of cargo along with a specially designed test dummy named “Ripley”, who is fitted with a new high-tech space suit that was designed for the Crew Dragon.


What is the Crew Dragon? Well, the Crew Dragon, designed by SpaceX, is 26.7 feet tall, with a diameter of 13 feet, and weighs about 16,000 pounds without any added cargo. The capsule is made up of two parts, the trunk and the capsule. The trunk is used for unpressurized cargo and to support the capsule during reentry into the atmosphere. On the trunk are solar arrays and launch escape fins. The capsule can carry up to 7 passengers, sports 3 large windows, and is fully autonomous, which means it doesn’t need anyone to control it. The capsule is also used for carrying pressure-sensitive cargo. The Crew Dragon is mounted on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, also designed by SpaceX, is the first orbital class rocket capable of reflight.


NASA originally ended their space shuttle mission program after the space shuttle, the Endeavor, finished its last mission in July 2011.  Ever since then, NASA has sent their astronauts to the ISS on Russia Soyuz spacecraft, and each of the three seats located on the Soyuz goes for $80 million. NASA decided to end their program because they had to take on more projects with the same budget before. This means that they needed to cut certain projects to stay on the new budget that Congress had given them. Also, there just weren’t enough people that were experts in the fields of space exploration and astronauts in general for NASA to keep up all the projects without being shorthanded on people.


NASA had originally planned for a few more projects, the Constellation program, the Orion or CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle) spacecraft and the Ares rockets. The Orion spacecraft was delayed while the Constellation program, along with the Ares lunar rockets was outright cancelled. NASA decided to turn to the private sector to build their next generation of space transportation in 2014. SpaceX and Boeing agreed to sign on; SpaceX got $2.6 billion while Boeing got $4.2 billon to work on their capsules. The SpaceX created the Crew Dragon capsule and Boeing is currently developing its own capsule, the CT-100 Starliner, which will have its first test flight some time in April.  Both these projects are aimed to expand NASA’s Commercial Crew Programs.


There were many delays in the building of the Crew Dragon capsule and the test launching of it. It was planned to be ready by 2017, but it was pushed back quite a bit. In November, after an online interview showed Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX smoking pot, NASA called for extensive safety reviews for SpaceX and Boeing when their drug-free environment was called into question. Per NASA Spokesperson, Bob Jacobs, the safety reviews “ensure the companies are meeting NASA’s requirements for workplace safety, including the adherence to a drug-free environment.”The assessments of SpaceX and Boeing took months and delayed the project. The actual launch date has been delayed two times for reasons that SpaceX and NASA has not disclosed, but it is speculated that the test launch was delayed for safety precautions.


The unmanned test went well for the Crew Dragon and the next test, the launch-abort test, will happen sometime in June if there are no further delays. The launch-abort test is when they test how well the launch escape system can get the crew to safety in an emergency on the launch pad. Then, the first manned test flight to the ISS scheduled in July.


The CT-100 Starliner first unmanned test flight is scheduled in April, launch-abort test in May, and if there isn’t any delays, its manned test flight in August.


Now, what do people think of these recent test flights? How will this advancements effect space travel? Space policy expert, John Logsdon and many others like him do not believe that the Crew Dragon isn’t anything particularly new or special. He says, “Because of Elon and SpaceX, there’s an aura of innovation to this, […] and I think the excitement that that creates is good for everybody. It’s all good, but it’s not the paradigm shift of a new way of doing business.” He also adds that the capsule wasn’t 100% commercial, NASA paid for most of it and also aided in its development. However, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says that this test flight will grew the budding commercial marketplace for spacecraft, “in that really grand vision,” he said. “And this is no small piece. This is an amazing achievement in the history of the United States of America.”


All in all, whether you agree or disagree in the importance of this achievement, it still is a new and very interesting development for NASA and the growing commercial spacecraft industry. Will the Crew Dragon lead NASA and the US to the future of space technology? We can only guess, but it gives NASA new hope.