First Crewed Dragon Flight to Orbit Will Carry NASA Astronauts

First Crewed Dragon Flight to Orbit Will Carry NASA Astronauts

SpaceX Founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk said in an interview this evening that the version of the Dragon spacecraft designed to take humans into space initially will be tested in an automated mode, but the first time it carries people, they will be NASA astronauts.

Dragon was the center of attention at a SpaceX event tonight in Washington, DC.   The company unveiled this version of the spacecraft — Dragon V2 — on May 29 at an event in California.  Now it is D.C.’s turn to see, touch, and sit in the vehicle.   It will be on display through tomorrow (June 11) at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.

The capsule can accommodate seven people.   Though it seems cozy by most standards, the interior is more spacious than Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, which is currently used to transport International Space Station (ISS) crews.  When asked about the cost for a Dragon capsule, Musk replied it was about $60 million, and the total cost including launch is $140 million.  SpaceX has said for many years that the price to NASA for a Dragon flight is $140 million.  When asked if that is the price or the cost, Musk said it was the cost.  He pointed out that if NASA uses all seven seats, that calculates out to $20 million a seat, much less than what Russia charges for a seat on Soyuz (in the $60-70 million range).  However, NASA is not planning to use all seven seats.  The ISS was designed to accommodate only seven crew members in total — three launched by Russia and four by the United States.  Presumably NASA would use any extra volume for cargo.

Musk confirmed that Dragon can remain in orbit for many months and hence could also serve as an ISS “lifeboat.”  Even when the space shuttle was flying, only Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft could remain on orbit for six months at a time and perform the lifeboat function, remaining attached to ISS as an escape route for the crew in case of an emergency.  Musk actually said this evening that Dragon can remain on orbit indefinitely whether or not it is attached to the ISS.  Soyuz’s lifetime is limited by how long its fuel can withstand the cold.  Russia decided long ago that six months was as long as Soyuz should stay in orbit and be expected to safely return crews to Earth.

Some of the companies competing for the commercial crew contract have indicated that initial orbital crewed flights may involve one crewperson from the company and another from NASA.   Musk said tonight that SpaceX has no astronauts and the first crewed flight would be with NASA astronauts only.  When asked when the first crewed flight would take place, therefore, Musk said that was NASA’s call since it is the customer.  He said little training is needed to fly aboard Dragon since it is entirely automated, including docking. 

SpaceX’s current version of Dragon, used for cargo flights to the ISS, berths with ISS rather than docks.   In berthing, Dragon flies close to the ISS and then the ISS crew uses Canadarm2 to grapple Dragon and maneuver it onto a docking port.  The reverse is done at the end of the mission.  Berthing therefore requires a crew to be aboard.  That is not a desirable situation for crewed flights, which may be sent to the ISS when it is unoccupied or if a crew is evacuating the ISS.  Therefore this version of  Dragon must be able to dock and undock instead, where no human intervention from the ISS side of the docking ring is required.

Unlike the cargo version of Dragon, which splashes down in the ocean, the Dragon V2 will return to land using parachutes and propulsive landing systems. The goal is to land at Cape Canaveral, FL, but Musk said initial landings may be at White Sands, NM until they are certain of the spacecraft’s landing precision.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.