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While the mission is not done just yet, SpaceX is days away from (hopefully) wrapping up an extraordinarily smooth debut of its newest spacecraft, a human-rated vehicle known as Crew Dragon. Assuming no anomalous behavior during reentry, descent, and landing this Friday, SpaceX will likely be less than six months away from launching its first astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), the most important step yet towards offering reliable and routine transport to Earth orbit and ultimately between Earth and Mars.
Founded by Elon Musk to kickstart a stagnant space industry and drive humanity to become an interplanetary species, SpaceX is in the process of building the first full-scale prototype(s) of the launch vehicle (Super Heavy) and spacecraft (Starship) it believes will deliver on those promises. Along with countless programmatic and technical lessons learned, every conceivable aspect of Crew Dragon’s development will feed directly into SpaceX’s development of Starship, meant to one day safely transport and land as many as 100 passengers on the surface of Mars.
A spacefaring civilization, one step at a time
In the process of building Crew Dragon, SpaceX has been forced to become rising experts in fields like human-rated environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS), as well as ensuring an even more extreme level of redundancy and reliability compared with SpaceX’s already high standards for their uncrewed Falcon rockets and Cargo Dragon spacecraft.
- More so than any particular piece of technology present on Crew Dragon, the process of both cooperating and grappling with NASA to build the spacecraft to high standards and ‘certify’ it has hopefully had an extremely positive impact on SpaceX’s own engineers and company-wide standards, albeit potentially at the cost of some of the willingness to take risks and move quickly.
“I’m personally convinced that this has made, certainly, SpaceX better, to have NASA guide us, and to look at requirements, and to try to question requirements, and what’s the true reason behind those requirements, and then basically comply with the overall safety culture that NASA taught us, I would say, to some extent. And so I feel like it certainly made a better SpaceX and made better engineers out of the SpaceX engineers. And I really appreciate that very much.”
-Hans Koenigsman, Vice President of Mission Assurance, SpaceX
Feet in Earth orbit, head in the Martian clouds
- Regardless, the end result will ultimately be a reliable spacecraft capable of transporting an average of 4-7 astronauts to and from the ISS, whether that end result is the result of near-perfect execution the first time around or discovering and fixing problems during flight tests.
- Compared to NASA, SpaceX prefers a radically agile approach to development, meaning that the company will rapidly build, test, and fly iterations of the same hardware of software, beginning with the minimum viable product and ending (although improvement never really ends) with an advanced solution optimized by extensive lessons learned.
- Through the process of building Crew Dragon, SpaceX has hopefully absorbed most of the valuable lessons and practices NASA can often be rich with while rejecting the unhealthy and unsuccessful tendencies that contribute to NASA’s distinctly unimpressive modern efforts to build human-rated rockets (SLS) and spacecraft (Orion, Space Shuttle).
- With that knowledge and technical experience, SpaceX may already have an extremely strong foundation upon which it can build its next-gen spacecraft, Starship. In theory, Crew Dragon’s life support system – meant to support up to 7 astronauts with extreme reliability and safety – should be able to scale up to ECLSS fit for dozens or hundreds of passengers.
- In a worst-case scenario relative to mass efficiency, SpaceX could quite literally package Crew Dragon’s ECLSS system into a module and duplicate it as many times as needed for a given Starship crew. Identical modules could then be transported in a cargo bay for any structures built on the surface of Mars or the Moon.
- Understandably, Crew Dragon does not need a significant number of systems critical for longer stays in space, as it is only designed to support humans for approximately one week in free-flight. SpaceX will still need to develop extremely efficient recycling systems, used to recycle water, oxygen, and other consumables to extend the amount of time the ISS (or Starship/Mars colonies) can operate without external supply deliveries.
- In essence, recycling technology is roughly (or sometimes exactly) equivalent to something known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), basically prioritizing local resources over shipped goods. A small subset of SpaceX’s future projects team has been working on ISRU – particularly Sabatier reactors for Starship refueling on Mars – for several years.
- In late 2017, Elon Musk stated that the design and development of SpaceX’s own ISRU hardware were “pretty far along.”
- SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will attempt its first orbital-velocity reentry and Atlantic Ocean splashdown on the morning of Friday, March 8th.
- The second launch of Falcon Heavy could occur as early as late March
- Aside from DM-1 and Falcon Heavy Flight 2, it’s unclear what SpaceX mission will happen next. DM-1 may be the only SpaceX launch in March, while several missions are tentatively scheduled for April and May.
Photos of the week:
B1051 returned to Port Canaveral three days after successfully sending Crew Dragon on its first orbital mission. Thanks to the relatively low-energy trajectory and gentle reentry, SpaceX should be able to refurbish the booster extremely quickly.(c. Tom Cross, Pauline Acalin)