In the upcoming weeks you will be hearing in the news the words “Dragon Spacecraft”, so Sinead McNicholl has the full story on what exactly this new vehicle is and what it will be used for.


image of dragonlab in-orbit

DragonLab in Orbit (Image credit: SpaceX


The Dragon is a spacecraft developed by a company called the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX for short.  The company, established by PayPal founder Elon Musk in 2002, has made history already by becoming the first private company to send a spacecraft into orbit and return back to Earth.  This revolutionary spacecraft is called Dragon, and it now it looks like Dragon could be ready for a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) in April of this year.  This will mark the first flight of a commercial vehicle to the ISS and many see it as a stepping stone to open up space tourism.  After a successful flight readiness review, 30 April 2012 has been set aside as the first planned launch date from Cape Canaveral, Florida to the ISS some 390 km overhead.


Image of Dragon

A Dragon Capsule under prepation for flight (image credit: SpaceX via Wikipedia)


Development on Dragon began in 2005 under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.  Knowing that the Shuttles were going to be retired, NASA wanted an alternative method of space travel developed and SpaceX took the mantle.  However with the last Shuttle mission taking place in July 2011 the race is now on to get another reliable craft ready.  At the moment NASA astronauts are reliant on the Russian Soyuz craft to take them to the ISS with the US having to pay Russia for this facility, so to have their own spacecraft again would in the long term save America money.

The SpaceX dream of having a space vehicle was realised on 8 December 2010 when an uncrewed SpaceX Dragon craft began its maiden voyage from Cape Canaveral on a Falcon 9 rocket.  The successful launch saw the Falcon separate approximately ten minutes after lift-off followed by a successful orbit 300km (190 miles) above the Earth. It was later revealed that there had been a payload onboard the craft in the form of a wheel of Le Brouére cheese.  This was a fromage… I mean homage to Monty Pythons Cheese-shop sketch, a particular favourite of Elon Musk’s where John Cleese tries to order cheese from a cheese-shop that has no cheese.  This strange payload was bolted down to the floor of the craft in a circular drum with a picture of a cow and the words “Top Secret” engraved on it, again another comedy reference, this time to a 1984 comedy film from the creators of the better-known Airplane.


Image of Dragon Payload

The top secret Payload onboard Dragon’s maiden flight. Image credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX)


So, what have SpaceX designed?

image of dragon diagram

Technical details of the Dragon spacecraft (Image Credit: SpaceX)


Dragon is a reusable craft which can carry up to seven passengers.  It has 18 Draco thrusters which are dual-redundant on all axes and if any two fail it won’t compromise control over the craft.  It also boasts a PICA-X heat shield which is designed to withstand re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere at high velocities implying the vehicle is suitable for potential Lunar or even Martian missions.  On re-entry Dragon will land in the Pacific Ocean and will be air-lifted by helicopter to shore, however SpaceX plan to eventually have a deployable landing gear system that can perform a land-based decent.


It has three main components; its nosecone, the spacecraft and the trunk.  The nosecone protects the vehicle and its docking adapter during an assent as it makes its way through Earth’s atmosphere and is jettisoned after stage separation.  Once it separates a standard ISS Common Berthing Mechanism is revealed which allows Dragon to be captured and docked to the ISS.  The spacecraft element houses the crew and/or the cargo along with the support infrastructure such as the parachutes and avionics.  Finally the trunk section is used for unpressurised cargo and contains the solar arrays and thermal radiators which is jettisoned before re-entry.


Image of Recovery of Dragon

The Dragon in the Sea: the capsule floats in the Pacific Ocean after a successful maiden voyage in to space (Image credit: Wikipedia)


Dragon will also lay claim to being the first American transport space vehicle to use solar arrays (following the forty year lead of the Russian Soyuz).  Whilst many satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope use solar power, the use of them in a transport vehicle paves the way for using a long-term renewable power source.  The solar arrays on Dragon will recharge the battery pack when in the Sun’s light and the charged batteries provide power when the craft passes through the Earth’s shadow and is in darkness.  This is of particular benefit when thinking about future missions, not just to the space station, but beyond even perhaps to Mars some day!


Image of Dragon ISS Docking

An artist’s impression of the Dragon docking with the ISS (image credit: Wikipedia)


When the spacecraft is used to carry cargo to and from the ISS and is uncrewed it is referred to as the DragonCargo.  At time of writing (March 2012) NASA have scheduled twelve DragonCargo missions to resupply the ISS.  They have scheduled two in 2012, two for 2013, three in 2014 and five during 2015.  When the craft is used for non-NASA, non-ISS commercial flights and is uncrewed it is called DragonLab.  As of March 2012 there are two DragonLab missions planned.  One mission is planned for 2014 and a second during 2015.  DragonLab offers a new capability for commercial in-space experimentation (see SpaceX’s corporate videos).


Space travel is one of the most difficult of all human endeavours, and success is never guaranteed.  But the SpaceX dream is almost complete and it will no doubt launch the space-dream for non-astronauts around the world.  Over the next several decades space tourism will grow with entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson already on the wagon!  In fact Virgin Galactic, which is owned by Branson, has been selling trips to space for the mere sum of $200,000.  This month American actor Ashton Kutcher became the 500th customer following in fellow celebrities, Tom Hanks, Katy Perry, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s footsteps who have already secured their seat.


So, who knows, perhaps one day we will all experience a trip into space, but for now SpaceX are concerned with their upcoming flight bringing 400kg of dried food to the ISS whilst still holding the dream of one day visiting the Red Planet.  So 2012 will be an important year for space travel.  In Chinese astrology this year marks the year of the Dragon, SpaceX will be hoping that it is a year of the Dragon for them as well!


(Article by Sinead McNiicholl, Education Support Officer)


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