Days after NASA confirmed that SpaceX is on track for a Crew Dragon launch on November 14th and the first Cargo Dragon 2 launch on December 2nd, a company executive says that that back-to-back launch is a sign of things to come.
The first semi-functional Dragon spacecraft flew more than a decade ago in December 2010, followed some 18 months later by vehicle’s second orbital mission, during which SpaceX became the first private company in history to launch and berth a spacecraft with the International Space Station (ISS). Four months after that, Cargo Dragon successfully berthed with the ISS for the second time as part of SpaceX’s first NASA Commercial Resupply Services mission (CRS-1), beginning what would come to be an extraordinarily successful series of 19 operational space station resupply runs, delivering a bit less than 45 metric tons (~100,000 lb) total.
SpaceX fulfilled the entirety of its NASA CRS1 contract in April 2020, effectively retiring the first-generation Dragon spacecraft. Less than two months later, Crew Dragon – an upgraded ‘Dragon 2’ spacecraft – lifted off on its second orbital mission and astronaut launch debut, the flawless completion of which has made SpaceX the first private company in history certified to fly astronauts by a national space agency. Now, perhaps little more than two weeks apart, SpaceX is on track to attempt its first operational astronaut launch and the first launch of an upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft under a new NASA CRS2 cargo contract.
Speaking in a November 10th press teleconference focused first and foremost on Crew Dragon’s imminent operational launch debut, SpaceX executive Benji Reed – taking a well-earned stance of confidence – revealed some impressive details about what to expect from Dragon going forward.
“Over the next 15 months, we will fly seven Crew and Cargo Dragon missions for NASA. That means that starting with Crew-1, there will be a continuous presence of SpaceX Dragons on orbit. Starting with the cargo mission CRS-21, every time we launch a Dragon, there will be two Dragons in space – simultaneously – for extended periods of time. Truly, we are returning the United States’ capability for full launch services and we are very, very honored to be a part of that.”
In short, SpaceX has seven Dragon launches scheduled between November 2020 and January 2022, necessitating an average cadence of one Dragon mission every two or so months. To accomplish that feat, SpaceX will begin to delve deep into reusability, reusing both Crew and Cargo Dragons and the Falcon 9 boosters tasked with launching them. The first of those reuses is schedule as soon as March 2021, in which four astronauts will launch on a flight-proven booster, inside a flight-proven orbital spacecraft, to the International Space Station.
Meanwhile, thanks to NASA’s plans to extend the amount of time uncrewed Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft spend in orbit at the ISS and an average of two six-month Crew Dragon missions annually, SpaceX could find itself maintaining a continuous presence in space starting as soon as November 14th. As Reed notes, that also means that every two Dragons will be simultaneously operating in low Earth orbit (LEO) every time SpaceX launches a Cargo Dragon resupply mission.
Roscosmos, Russia’s national space agency, is the only other entity on Earth that can claim a similar capability – now used to simultaneously operating multiple Soyuz crew and Progress cargo spacecraft in orbit after almost a decade spent serving as the sole bridge between Earth and the ISS. If SpaceX’s Crew-1 Crew Dragon and CRS-21 Cargo Dragon launches are successful, the private US company will effectively become the backbone of US spaceflight, almost singlehandedly reasserting the country’s position as a competitive space power.