Catching a Ride on the SpaceX Dragon
Falcon Heavy launch. Credit: SpaceX

Catching a Ride on the SpaceX Dragon

10/04/2019Written by Toby Raine

How SpaceX is tantalisingly close to becoming the first private company to launch astronauts into space.

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mascot Telescope Right
Falcon Heavy launch. Credit: SpaceX
Falcon heavy booster landing. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is a company that has been making waves in the space industry ever since entrepreneur Elon Musk created it in 2002. Musk’s goal for the company has always been ambitious: to greatly reduce the cost of spaceflight and make possible the colonisation of Mars, allowing us to become a multi-planetary species.

Over the years, SpaceX has achieved some breath-taking milestones: launching the first private liquid-fuelled rocket into orbit (the Falcon 1 rocket in 2008), becoming the second company after Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin company to land and reuse a space-flown rocket, and the first to land and reuse a rocket that had delivered a spacecraft into orbit (the Falcon 9 rocket in 2015).

Since then, SpaceX has had its sights set on a new milestone – to become the first private company to launch humans into space. Specifically, to the International Space Station as part of a contract with NASA. If they are successful, SpaceX will become the company that made it possible to launch astronauts from US soil once again, something that ended with the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle in 2011.

The SpaceX Dragon

The SpaceX Dragon
SpaceX's Dragon cargo craft approaching the ISS in 2018. Credit: NASA
The SpaceX Dragon
SpaceX's Dragon captured by the ISS. Credit: NASA

To achieve these goals, SpaceX needs a spacecraft that can safely carry people. For this, they’ve looked to their tried-and-tested Dragon cargo capsule.

For over a decade, SpaceX has been developing and flying their Dragon capsule to launch and return cargo from space.

SpaceX’s main customer for the Dragon capsule is NASA. Since 2006, NASA has helped fund SpaceX for the development and use of this Dragon vessel through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. This program was developed by NASA in order to find cheaper, commercial alternatives for resupplying the International Space Station and to reduce reliance on Russian rockets once the Space Shuttle retired.

SpaceX successfully completed the test flights of the Dragon capsule in 2012, making Dragon the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the ISS, and have since flown 15 successful resupply missions to the ISS in order to fulfil multi-billion dollar contracts. SpaceX continued to develop Dragon and in 2017 they launched a previously flown Dragon capsule for the first time, reducing the cost of cargo missions even further.

Designing Crew Dragon

The expertise gained through the development of Dragon capsule has given SpaceX, and more importantly NASA, the confidence to develop a human spacecraft as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. The program was created to encourage the creation of an American commercial spacecraft that could launch astronauts to the International Space Station.

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA have bought seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which is currently the only spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the ISS.

NASA’s next rocket and human spacecraft, the Space Launch System and Orion is not planned to perform a crewed flight until at least 2022 and will be focused on delivering astronauts to further afield to the Moon and Mars.

In 2014, SpaceX and rival space company Boeing were both awarded contracts to provide flights to the ISS. This requires a spacecraft that could carry at least four astronauts to and from the ISS, along with other key requirements.

SpaceX’s answer to this challenge is its Crew Dragon capsule, an upgraded version of their flight-proven cargo carrier. Crew Dragon will come with features that will make it comfortable for future astronauts, including windows, life-support systems and flight computers with touch screen interfaces.

Ferrying Crew

Ferrying Crew
SpaceX's test flight of Crew Dragon (Demo-1). Credit: SpaceX
Ferrying Crew
Crew Dragon docking with the ISS in March 2019. Credit: NASA

In March 2019, SpaceX finally put the Crew Dragon through its paces by sending it up to dock with the ISS on its first test flight.

The capsule arrived at the ISS carrying 180kg of supplies for the astronauts already aboard the station as well many sensors to monitor the craft. Some of these sensors were put in a mannequin named Ripley (after the main character in the film Alien) to see how humans would be affected during flight.

After 5 days attached to the ISS, Crew Dragon re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. This successfully tested the procedures required for a flight with human crew, paving the way for Crew Dragon’s next trip to space.

After years in development, 2019 will be a big year for both SpaceX and Boeing. Both companies have promised to launch astronauts in their crew spacecraft within the year. And while space deadlines are often a moving target due to the sheer complexity of the missions, SpaceX is showing strong signs that it will meet its target.

SpaceX plans to launch NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley up to the ISS in the summer of 2019. After their recent success with the uncrewed test flight of Crew Dragon to the ISS, this is looking very achievable. During the first crewed flight, Behnken and Hurley will wear newly designed flight suits which SpaceX have already shown off on mannequins both during the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy and the Crew Dragon test flight.

Boeing are also hoping to test fly their CST-100 Starliner spacecraft this year, but the deadlines have recently slipped from spring to late summer 2019.

Space tourism

Space tourism
NASA's commerical crew astronauts. Credit: NASA
Space tourism
NASA's commerical crew programme (artist impression). Credit: NASA
Space tourism
Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity. Credit: Virgin Galactic

The future looks bright as private companies continue to push the boundaries of spaceflight.

In 2018, SpaceX announced the sale of their first tourist trip around the Moon to billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. As an art enthusiast, Maezawa plans to take several accomplished artists with him in the hopes of inspiring new art that will promote peace across the world. Originally, this trip was going to launch on the Falcon Heavy rocket, however SpaceX has since decided to keep Falcon Heavy has a heavy-lifter for big satellites and instead focus on human-safety development of their new super-heavy lift rocket system known as BFR. This will consist of a first and second stage rocket named ‘Super Heavy’ and ‘Starship’ respectively.

But SpaceX is not alone in its space tourism efforts. There are plans for a future ‘space hotel’ – a commercial space station built by Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow has been developing inflatable living spaces for use in orbit and has had an experimental inflatable module called BEAM attached to the ISS since April 2016. The two companies announced an alliance in 2012 which could lead to some fruitful cooperation once Crew Dragon is ready for commercial use.

While SpaceX has collaborators, it’s also not without its competitors. Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin has already built its reusable, sub-orbital New Shepard rocket. The first crewed flight for New Shepard is planned for later this year and reservations are already open to buy tickets.

British entrepreneur Richard Branson is also making some headway in space tourism with his spaceflight company Virgin Galactic. In early 2019, the company recently completed two crewed test flights with its VSS Unity spacecraft. The sub-orbital flights brought the crews to the edge of space, and reached altitudes over 80 kilometres, enough for the pilots to be awarded astronaut wings by the US government.

Blue Origin's Mannequin Skywalker’s ride to space

There are more players than ever in 21st century space exploration, making the industry very vibrant and exciting.

With space tourism just emerging and a new space race back to the Moon and on to Mars just around the corner, it promises to be a fascinating decade ahead.

About the author: Toby Raine is a Science Interpreter at the National Space Centre, with a physics degree from the University of Leicester.