I had figured that SpaceX was working on a manned capsule already, they have more or less said so already, but I had no idea that they had gotten anywhere near as far as implied in this Space News article:
Neither Dragon nor its Falcon 9 rocket is ready to roll out to the launch pad. But the Falcon 9 is in development for a 2007 debut and some Dragon hardware – including a full-scale working prototype – already has been built.
“As part of a top secret project, we’ve already built a prototype flight crew capsule, including a thoroughly tested 30-man-day-life-support system, which is sitting on our factory floor right now,” Musk told Space News. “It doesn’t meet all the NASA requirements, so it will probably not see flight, but it has served as a valuable learning experience.”
Now, while it is possible to game the definition of “working prototype” a bit, I think that this sounds like something more substantial than just a fancy looking mockup, and that’s cool. There’s far too much viewgraphing and far to little hardware bending going on in this industry.
A lot of other people have commented on this already, so I’ll just list a few of the things I like or noticed about it:
- The system comes with a robotic arm. That is primarily to allow the module to be “berthed” instead of “docked”, but it also opens up a lot of other ancillary possiblities that I’ve put some skullsweat into. First off, it allows you to do satellite recovery operations in the case of a satellite put into a bad orbit, or that was damaged on orbit. Admittedly, this would likely be limited to LEO for now, but is a good start on future capabilities. Also, it gives the ability to do on-orbit checkout of satellites. With a 1-2 person crew, no CBM, an arm, and the rest of the mass designated to a medium sized satellite (say 2000kg or so unfueled), that allows you intact recovery of your satellite in case of a launch failure, on-orbit checkout, and the ability to bring the thing back and fly it again if the bird fails. It would also make mating a GEO sat to a booster a lot easier. The list goes on. Basically, I’m a huge fan of the arm, even if it cuts into cargo mass. [Update: As one of the commenters noticed, it turns out that I misread the article. The Dragon itself would not contain a robotic arm, but would use the space station arm for berthing. While this should work great for the station, it means a lot of the other ideas I brought up really don’t actually apply. Teach me to blog something when I’m this tired]
- Using a CBM for the connection. This allows for swapping out full sized station payload racks (I keep forgetting the FLA for those things, ISPR maybe?), unlike the other sorts of docking systems. This allows for bringing cargo and experiments up, taking cargo and experiments down, and doing a lot of the logistical crud that NASA has been having the Shuttle do (thus allowing us to kill the stupid thing sooner).
- SpaceX doesn’t appear to be trying to “suck the air out of the room” for the COTS contract. They say that they’re asking for less than the full amount of money, and most of that for paying for demonstration flights (as opposed to paying for the development itself). Since they already have hardware partially built, they could have tried to shoulder out all competition, but by leaving some additional COTS money for at least 1-2 other firms, that will be good for everyone, in my opinion. While there may be some counterexamples, most serious industries have more than one serious competitor involved. Jeff Greason of XCOR likes pointing out that a “rising tide lifts all boats”, and I think he’s right. By leaving it open for at least one or two other serious players in the field, I think SpaceX is showing its wisdom in this matter like they did with the DARPA FALCON SLV project. By only asking for a bit of money for demonstration flights, they are helping foster a real competitive industry.
- Did anyone else notice that Elon mentioned that the $100M SpaceX has spent to date has gone not just to Falcon I, but also to doing some of the development work for Falcon V/IX, getting two launch complexes setup, preparing test infrastructure for future vehicles, and a capsule as well? That means his investment on just Falcon I is a lot lower than some space pundits have been assuming.
- In a previous announcement about their plans for manned vehicles (I think it was back around when they announced the Merlin 2 and BFR), they said that they would allow other companies to launch capsules on Falcon IX and that in fact they would charge themselves internally the same rate as they charge external customers. Ie, they won’t be internally subsidizing the launch costs for their capsules. I think that this is also a cool move on their part, as it encourages others to develop capsules that can fly on their vehicle, which should substantially increase their flight rates.
The only thing I can complain about really is that I think it would’ve been cool to see the DC-X like, VTVL capsule idea they had originally been working on. That would’ve been cool.
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