SpaceX is about to double the size of its fleet of Crew Dragon spaceships. The company is debuting a new spacecraft for a NASA launch later this month, and is building a fourth human-rated capsule that should be ready for flight early next year, a SpaceX official said Wednesday.
Sarah Walker, director of SpaceX’s Dragon mission management office, confirmed Wednesday the company is readying a fourth Crew Dragon spacecraft for an inaugural flight next year. SpaceX and NASA officials previously announced that the next NASA crew mission, known as Crew-3, scheduled for liftoff Oct. 30 will use a new vehicle.
“It’s really exciting to introduce another Crew Dragon to our fleet to support our human spaceflight manifest,” Walker said. “We’ve got another one in the production line now. It should be ready in the spring to support more human spaceflight missions.”
The addition of two more Crew Dragon capsules to SpaceX’s fleet will give the spaceflight provider an inventory of four human-rated spaceships. Walker said that fleet should be sufficient to support the company’s growing manifest of crew missions for NASA and private customers.
“Those four Crew Dragon vehicles seem sufficient to meet our manifest, which is thriving right now, and it’s exciting to see all of the traffic on the vehicles,” Walker said in response to a question from Spaceflight Now. “Reusability is key to SpaceX, with our rockets and our spacecraft.”
“It’s a big deal that Dragon is reusable, with improved refurbishment efficiency with each passing flight!” tweeted Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO and founder. “This is not the case for other orbital spacecraft.”
The fourth Crew Dragon in SpaceX’s fleet is assigned to NASA’s Crew-4 mission to the International Space Station. That mission is scheduled to launch April 15, 2022.
SpaceX refurbishes Dragon spaceships inside a clean room facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. SpaceX says the Crew Dragon capsules are each certified for at least five flights into orbit.
The astronauts flying on NASA’s Crew-3 and Crew-4 missions are expected to choose the names for the new Crew Dragon spacecraft. The first crews that flew on SpaceX’s two active Crew Dragons selected names for those capsules: Crew Dragon Endeavour and Crew Dragon Resilience.
The Crew-3 mission is commanded by NASA astronaut Raja Chari, a first-time space flier and a former fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Chari will be joined by veteran astronaut Thomas Marshburn, who will serve as the Crew-3 pilot, rookie NASA astronaut Kayla Barron, and European Space Agency mission specialist Matthias Maurer, who is also making his first trip into space.
Their mission is set for blastoff Oct. 30 at 2:43 a.m. EDT (0643 GMT) aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Assuming an on-time launch, their Crew Dragon capsule will glide to an automated docking at the International Space Station early on Oct. 31, beginning a half-year expedition on the complex.
SpaceX has four more Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station under contract with NASA, plus four private crew missions to the station for Axiom Space, a Houston-based company with ambitions to build a commercial research outpost in low Earth orbit that could replace the ISS.
There’s also a contract with the space tourism company Space Adventures for a standalone Crew Dragon flight that will not go to the International Space Station, a solo mission similar to the all-private Inspiration4 flight last month.
SpaceX also has a contract with NASA for resupply missions to the space station using the company’s fleet of Cargo Dragon capsules, which are based on the crew-rated spaceship, but fly without seats or launch escape rockets.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsules fly with reusable crew modules, where up to four astronauts can live and work for a few days in low Earth orbit, either on standalone missions or in transit to and from the space station. They are certified for stays of up to 210 days docked at the station, where the Dragon spacecraft can be powered down and receive supplemental electricity from the lab’s electrical grid.
The Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft is currently docked at the space station on NASA’s Crew-2 mission, the ship’s second mission to orbit. It is scheduled to undock and return to Earth in early November with the four Crew-2 astronauts, who launched April 23.
The Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft has also launched on two missions, first with NASA’s Crew-1 astronauts last November. The capsule splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico on May 2, and SpaceX refurbished the spacecraft for the all-civilian, privately-funded Inspiration4 mission, which launched Sept. 15 with four amateur astronauts on a three-day trip to orbit.
That capsule is now back inside SpaceX’s processing hangar at Cape Canaveral, where technicians are readying it for another commercial crew mission — the first for Axiom Space — slated to launch Feb. 21 on a Falcon 9 rocket.
The Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft is set to launch again on the first Axiom mission, known as Ax-1. It will be commanded by veteran NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who retired from the space agency in 2012 after nearly 258 days in orbit on four missions.
Three wealthy businessmen will join López-Alegría for an eight-day stay on the space station. The entire mission is scheduled to run about 10 days from liftoff through splashdown.
Walker, SpaceX’s Dragon mission manager, said Wednesday the company is also building a new Cargo Dragon spacecraft for a flight to the space station next year. That will give SpaceX a fleet of three reusable Cargo Dragon capsules.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon fleets replaced the company’s first-generation Dragon spaceships, which ferried supplies to and from the space station on 20 missions from 2012 through 2020.
There are two Crew Dragon vehicles SpaceX built for space missions. The first, which flew an unpiloted test mission to the space station in 2019, exploded in a subsequent ground test of its launch abort system. SpaceX launched the other Crew Dragon for an atmospheric in-flight abort test.
Benji Reed, director of SpaceX’s Human spaceflight programs, said last month there’s “tons of interest” from the private sector and wealthy individuals to fly to space on Crew Dragon missions. NASA is also widely expected to extend SpaceX’s commercial crew contract for additional government-sponsored Crew Dragon flights to the space station, beyond the original six missions.
“I see our ability to already be able to transition into the kind of five or six mission range (per year),” Reed said.
The flight rate will be aided by SpaceX’s use of refurbished rockets and spacecraft. The Falcon 9 booster stage used for Crew Dragon launches is reusable, as is the Dragon spacecraft’s crew module. Dragon’s unpressurized trunk, which houses the craft’s solar panels, and the Falcon 9 rocket’s upper stage are single-use.
SpaceX’s next-generation Starship vehicle, currently undergoing testing in South Texas, will eventually also ferry people to and from space, he said. It’s designed to be fully reusable.
“On the horizon, of course, is Starship, and Starship will be able to carry a lot of people at once,” Reed said.
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