SpaceX Environmental Assessment Reveals a Sky Full of Dragons

Map of proposed Dragonfly test area. Credit : FAA

One week ahead of a scheduled unveiling of the Commercial Crew Dragon 2.0 spacecraft which is to take place on May 29, a draft environmental assessment published by the FAA sheds a wealth of information regarding the new testing program which will support it.

In short SpaceX is about to embark on a completely unprecedented program at its McGregor Rocket Development Facility which could see as many as 60 propulsive landings of its new “DragonFly” test article take place over a two year time frame beginning later this year, and extending through 2015. To say the very least, it should prove thrilling.

Four types of tests are outlined in the EA, and described in the chart below:


Note total operations are per year, and the more than half the potential tests will be ground to air to ground tests with no parachutes involved.  Also, all of the tests will be unmanned, and should take place from an additional 40 x 40 foot concrete pad SpaceX intends to built for the purpose.  To this extent, the new round of tests will mirror the Grasshopper RLV first stage tests which have been ongoing at McGregor for several years.

That being said, the visual impact of a spacecraft explicitly designed for carrying crew doing the same thing, over and over, time and again, in manner which viscerally just feels “right,” is likely to be electrifying, and should not be underestimated. For Russia, and perhaps some in the U.S., it should be nothing less than completely demoralizing.

Whenever the first videos are released, much of the the narrative dominating coverage of America’s space program and dependence on Russia for rides to the International Space Station will begin to change, and quickly.

Other items detailed in the document indicate that many, if not most of the tests will take place with the Dragon “trunk” still attached, which may come as a surprise to some. Also, the maximum fuel loading will consist of 400 gallons of propellant. DragonFly will be powered by 8 SuperDraco engines described as being affixed to a monolithic aluminum bar with three attachment points. Depending on the arrangement when it is finally revealed, it is not difficult to conjure up the sort of sci-fi image Elon Musk alluded to when discussing Dragon 2.0.

Drop tests would take place from 10,000 feet, with ground launched propulsion tests ascending to 7,000 feet. Tests combining the SuperDraco with parachutes will see the craft descent to 98 feet above ground before initiating a 5 second burn to achieve a soft landing.

If these tests go as well as the Grasshopper test flights which have already taken place, it becomes almost inconceivable that SpaceX will not both be at least one of the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew competition, and also the company most likely to return the domestic crew launch capability to the U.S. first.

The handicapping has of course long been underway, but at first glance the DragonFly program may very well be a boon to Sierra Nevada and the Dream Chaser space plane, by making the Boeing CST-100 capsule appear both redundant and underwhelming.  In the end though, safety will be the key criteria, and with two entirely separate methods of bringing astronauts back to ground, the sky may soon be full of Dragons.


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3 Comments on "SpaceX Environmental Assessment Reveals a Sky Full of Dragons"

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  1. khychin says:

    This is exciting news for Space X fans

  2. Coastal Ron says:

    The dearth of visible progress for the Boeing CST-100 sure does make Sierra Nevada look like it’s making steady progress with the Dream Chaser. Plus the capabilities and progress of the SpaceX Dragon do make it seem like the front runner.

    So it will be interesting to see what NASA does with the next round of contract awards. I would think there is no doubt that SpaceX will win a contract, as they are the furthest along, and have the most “mature” flight hardware.

    If NASA only had enough money for one more participant, would they choose Boeing or Sierra Nevada?

    Boeing is the safe choice from a design standpoint, but they have not been demonstrating very much progress. That has to be worrying to NASA, since Boeing obviously has the capital and capabilities to have a robust development schedule for the CST-100, but it sure doesn’t look like they are doing as much as they could.

    Sierra Nevada is pushing the envelope more on design than the two capsules, but they are relying on lots of NASA heritage which should make NASA feel more willing to accept some of the additional risk. Plus the Dream Chaser provides capabilities that neither capsule provide, so I’m sure NASA would like that added flexibility.

    I would not be surprised if NASA announces that SpaceX will be fully funded for Commercial Crew, and that Sierra Nevada receives whatever funding is leftover in order to provide a backup in the near future. And Boeing will not receive any further funding. And I’d be OK with that.

    • What is NASA’s version of fully funded? Of $800 million is it 300 million for two & $200 million for one, each year for the next 3 years? That would give $900 million for two & $600 million for one by the end of 2017.

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