SpaceX Dragon V2: What it Might Mean

As much of the space world counts down to the 7:00 PM PT “reveal” of the SpaceX Dragon V2, (or DragonRider if you prefer) and executives at other aerospace companies reach into the desk to reassure themselves that the bottle of Xanex isn’t completely empty yet, a lot of the discussion has been regarding how it looks. What about what it means?

Could it be that we are about to see much more than one of three entrants in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program?

Although obvious in one sense, it is worth underscoring that whether crewed or loaded with cargo, a propulsively landed Dragon is a crucial step in achieving the long sought goal of full re-usability. As the salty, wet conclusion to SpaceX’s most recent trip to ISS reminds us, if it is possible to come down in one piece on dry land, it is by all means the path to follow. And while a Dragon has yet to be re-used, and there are no currently announced plans for doing so, whether aided by parachutes or powered by its own thrusters, Dragon V2 not only offers the potential of re-use, it virtually demands it.

The same could of course be said of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane, perhaps even of the Boeing CST-100, but the critical difference is that the Dragon is only part of an entire system which is iteratively inching its way towards full re-use.  Dream Chaser and CST-100, at least as long as they are launched aboard the Atlas V, are in some ways stuck in the same category of the Shuttle system, where one major component, the External Tank, was always going to be sacrificed,  and people were left to argue over what to call the Solid Rocket Booster’s re-use of steel casings.

To be sure, SpaceX is still a long, long way from that goal, but it is equally certain that the company is making remarkable progress, which is why the introduction of Dragon V2 is such a significant development.  As soon as propulsive recovery tests in Texas result in a successful soft landing for DragonFly,  SpaceX will have essentially closed the loop on one-third of a three part system. Increasingly confident in its ability to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage, SpaceX may be approaching the half-way point, or greater, in a quest which has profound implications for nearly every space venture conceivable within the limits of existing technology.

Until a first stage, or a Dragon, is both recovered and re-flown, plans based on their future availability are little more than conjecture mixed with a fair amount of hype. However, as the first real break in four decades of frustration with launch costs, is progress worth celebrating.

Might it also be the dawn if a new era of planetary exploration?

SpaceX itself left little doubt about that possibility in its recent statement announcing the conclusion of SuperDraco thruster qualification, stating it will “enable the vehicle to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.” (emphasis added), a capability clearly not present in either Commercial Crew competitor.

In a time when much of the general press is focusing on what the U.S. cannot do in space, there has probably not been enough attention paid, even in the space press, to the Dragon’s implications for planetary exploration. Automated, and perhaps even deprived of its pressure shell, the new Dragon could be a game changer as a delivery platform capable of placing large payloads to the surface of other planetary bodies, assuming a successful debut of the Falcon Heavy booster which can put it there.

Provided SpaceX can demonstrate in practice, the redundancy based radiation resistant architecture in deeper space that it claims for low Earth orbit, NASA could have a powerful new tool at its disposal.  The real question may be whether or not the agency is either inclined, or will be allowed to make the most of it.

Strap in, this could be an interesting ride




Posted in: Dragon, SpaceX

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