SpaceX’s original Cargo Dragon spacecraft has officially departed the International Space Station for the last time after completing its 20th orbital resupply mission for NASA.
Wrapping up nearly a decade of launches, this will be SpaceX’s last space station resupply mission until its upgraded Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft – based on Crew Dragon – takes over with CRS-21 later this year. SpaceX says it’s already building several new Dragon 2 spacecraft for upcoming NASA CRS2 missions and CRS-21 could launch as early as October 2020, potentially just a matter of weeks before or after Crew Dragon’s first operational astronaut launch (Crew-1) is scheduled.
Beginning with a free-flying orbital test flight in December 2010 and a highly successful space station rendezvous on its second flight in May 2012, SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon (Dragon 1) spacecraft has been performing operational resupply missions for NASA since October 2012. With CRS-20 now truly complete, over those ~7.5 years, SpaceX has successfully delivered almost 45 metric tons (100,000 lb) of supplies to the ISS and returned at least half as much cargo back to Earth.
When it first reentered in December 2010, Cargo Dragon became the only operational spacecraft in the world capable of returning a significant amount of orbital cargo to Earth. With the spacecraft’s 21st and final splashdown now complete as of April 7th, 2020, it has taken that “world’s only” title into retirement.
Excluding Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, both designed to launch and land a significant human payload, SpaceX’s next-generation Cargo Dragon 2 will hopefully carry Dragon 1’s torch in that regard, once again becoming the only operational spacecraft capable of returning a significant payload from orbit.
Now that Cargo Dragon capsule C112 has successfully splashed down for the third time in the Pacific Ocean, crew aboard the ship NRC Quest will lift the spacecraft into an on-board cradle, returning the vehicle to shore later today or early tomorrow. While the bulk of its CRS-20 mission is now complete, a Dragon resupply mission is only truly finished once its precious return cargo – invaluable science experiments, spacesuit and station parts in need of repair, and more – to dry land and into the hands of their respective owners.
Thankfully, the likelihood of anything going wrong now that Dragon has safely splashed down is nearly zero, meaning that SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon spacecraft has truly completed its final mission, bringing its historic ten-year career to a quiet and humble end. More likely than not, retired Dragons – including capsule C112 – may soon find themselves in museums or displayed at SpaceX’s main US facilities.