Dragon Spreads Its Wings

Manned spacecraft Dragon 2 built by the private company SpaceX was launched March 2, 2019. This launch divided space enthusiasts into two irreconcilable camps. Some see it as a breakthrough in manned space travel, while others insist that it's nothing extraordinary - after all, the spacecraft did, basically, the same thing the Russian Soyuz shuttles had been doing for years. What are, then, SpaceX’s new developments?

A Double Start

Nine years ago, along with the Russian manned Soyuz spacecrafts, American reusable Space Shuttle vehicles transported astronauts to the International Space Station. In the same year of 2010, NASA launched its Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to develop private manned space travel and design manned spacecraft that would replace shuttles. Even then it was clear that Space Shuttle originally built for other purposes, and designed for a much larger number of launches per year, was too expensive to use it for traveling to the Station and back, and, therefore, required replacement as soon as it would be possible. Two fatal Space Shuttle accidents with all astronauts on board getting killed served as an additional factor for urgent change of vehicle.

Therefore, NASA decided to develop low-cost and simple (compared to Space Shuttle) manned spacecraft that would transport at least four crew members to the Space Station in a single flight as part of CCP. A number of trial procedures resulted in two companies being selected for building similar spacecraft: the aerospace giant Boeing proposed the project of CST-100 Starliner that would be used in tandem with Atlas V launch vehicle, and SpaceX (then Space Exploration Technologies) that offered to make the Dragon cargo spacecraft into a manned vehicle, equipping it with an integrated emergency rescue system. Dragon 2 was to be taken to the orbit by launch vehicle Falcon 9 also developed by SpaceX.

Over the years the exterior of the ship changed many times. Photo credit: NASA

The plan was for the two companies to have completed these projects by May 2014. In 2011 the Space Shuttle program was closed, leaving the Russian Soyuz vehicles the single remaining means of transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.  At the time, China had a manned space program as well, but it did not participate in any projects of the International Space Station, and never sent astronauts there.

The companies strove to get ahead of each other, knowing that the leader of the two would get more attention in the media, as well as new interesting contracts from NASA. At first the situation was seemingly into Boeing’s favour, a company that possessed far greater capabilities and experience than its counterpart. Soon enough, it became clear that things weren’t that simple. The first surprise came when both the contractors failed to meet their appointed deadlines. The first spacecraft that had been built as part of the program flew into space only in the beginning of 2019, almost five years later than planned.

Many factors had a role to play in this. Time required for development couldn’t be determined correctly; a number of faults surfaced when works were in progres; NASA came up with new requirements for software used to operate docking with the International Space Station; due to the political crisis in the US, the launch was postponed by several months.  

SpaceX’s prevalence was the next surprise, even though only by a few months. Thus, Elon Musk and his team got a lot of coverage in the press.

Dragon 2: Inside and Outside

In one of his interviews, Elon Musk explained that the manned Dragon 2 had virtually none of the cargo Dragon spacecraft components.

Nevertheless, its architecture, having changed little since 2006 when the manned spacecraft concept was publicly presented before the NASA tender, can be easily traced back to it.

Over the following years, however, the exterior of the ship changed many times. First, it had landing pads, then they were removed from the design; the hull was elongated; bumps were added under the engines of the emergency rescue system. Technically, the spacecraft consists of two parts - a descent vehicle and a service module.

Only the descent vehicle has a sealed department for people, its measurements varying from 9.3 to 11 cubic meters, depending on the location and number of astronauts' lodgements and calculation methods. This is more than in the Russian Soyuz (3.5 cubic meters in the descent module + 5 cubic meters in the service compartment that doesn't return to the Earth). Dragon 2 can take up to seven astronauts to the ISS, while Soyuz could transport only three.

The spacecraft's automatic orbital station docking system is a new development. Photo credit: NASA

Equipped with a parachute water landing system, unlike the cargo Dragon spacecraft that lands in the Pacific Ocean, Dragon 2 lands in the Atlantic. The spacecraft's automatic orbital station docking system is a new development. The cargo Dragon didn't have it; ships approaching the ISS were grabbed and held by the Canadarm 2 robotic manipulator.  The emergency rescue system deserves a separate mention, as, unlike the Russian rescue system that is separated from the ship on the orbit, in Dragon 2 it's stationary and can, if needed, save the crew on any stage of the flight.

This flight is a test. More adaptations based on the results of the test flight are to be made before it's ready to carry a crew. For example, there's still no toilet on Dragon 2; plans of installing it behind a sliding curtain have been voiced, but there are no photos confirming this as of now.

With the assumed two or four-circle flight path, there might be no need for the toilet as such. On the other hand, there is always a chance of a 24 hour path being required, which will make such conveniences necessary.

Another mention-worthy element are large and convenient (compared to Soyuz) windows. It's not crucial from the technical standpoint; however, if SpaceX uses Dragon 2 for space tourism, its large windows and plenty of room to move around inside will play a decisive roles in making it a favourite.


If the flight goes as planned, Dragon 2 with crew on board may start as soon as in the summer of 2019. This will simplify the current way of taking crews to the ISS, facilitating rotation of astronauts. NASA crew are intended to switch places with the Russian Roscosmos: American astronauts will continue using Soyuz spacecraft free of transportation charge, and Russian astronauts will be part of Dragon 2 crews.

We may conclude that what happened March 2, 2019, will change the course of history: the first private manned spacecraft flew to the ISS. Even with only a zero-gravity indicator dummy and the maneken Ripley that got its name in honour of the science fiction film The Alien 40-year release anniversary, for its crew, it’s certainly future-bound.

Equipped with a parachute water landing system Dragon 2 lands in the Atlantic. Photo credit: NASA

In the future, seven crew members will be able to travel to the ISS in a single flight. Roscosmos that’s used to being a monopoly that gets paid for astronaut transportation isn’t too happy about this, but things will have to change anyway.

Now we must wait for the first flight of the Boeing spacecraft. The test launch is likely to take place in early April. This will allow us to talk of resuming the American manned space program that had been paused for almost 8 years. It is highly probable that in that case NASA will change its mind regarding participation in the ISS project after 2024: it makes perfect sense to use new spacecraft that’s ready to fly.

Well… We’ll see what happens.

Michael Kotov

Mikhail Kotov