On May 29th, 2014 Elon Musk, the founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX called the attention of the spaceflight community to the stage where he was to unveil the Dragon Version 2 spacecraft. It was a show that could hardly be matched by the best James Bond movie-maker; dramatically lit, smoke effects and a dazzling spacecraft, revealed as the curtain seemed to vanish magically! There was also a computer-animated video depicting a typical mission of Dv2 with special emphasis placed on its propulsive landing system.
“Now that’s the way a 21st Century spaceship should land,” Musk stated firmly.
Later Musk climbed aboard the Dv2 and demonstrated the huge flat-screen control panel, roomy cabin and sports car seating.
This was the unveiling of an innovative, game-changing spacecraft of the future that every space geek in the world dreams about… and it does not get us one step closer, one day sooner to again launching US astronauts from US soil.
Do not get me wrong, I am all for SpaceX, I think that the Falcon 9 booster and the Dragon spacecraft are amazing. I even have a Falcon 9 golf shirt, SpaceX pens, first-flight patch and a Dragon C1 patch as well as Dragon wallet made of recycled material. I truly want to see a Dragon spacecraft flying astronauts to and from space as soon as possible. I even think that Musk is a really cool guy, especially because he flies around in a Falcon Jet aircraft. Still, however, the glitz of the Dv2 unveil gave me some thoughts and concerns outside of waving the “Go SpaceX” pennant.
One of the promises of NASA’s “commercial” crew program, in which SpaceX is a major contender, is that the program will, as soon as possible, relieve United States astronauts from their dependence on the Russian Soyuz in order to get to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Recent political tensions with the Russian government have brought to light a simple aspect of that relationship that some of us considered a half dozen years ago, yet most in the spaceflight community simply did not want to think about; the Russians can now cut off all US access to the ISS at will. This has added an undercurrent of urgency to the “commercial” human spaceflight effort and it is now apparent that we, as a nation, need the three “commercial” spaceflight companies to move ahead at their best speed. Let us all keep in mind that America’s investment in the ISS is in the neighborhood of $80 Billion.
Leading the pack among the “commercial” spaceflight providers has always been SpaceX. Their Falcon 9 booster is rapidly building a reliability record and their Dragon spacecraft is making flights to and from the ISS with ocean splashdowns handled simply and inexpensively. Yet, on March 18th of 2010, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell testified before Senate committee for Assessing Commercial Space Capabilities and stated that SpaceX would reduce the time needed for Dragon to become a man-rated orbital vehicle because the Dragon, (version 1,) had been designed “from the beginning” to be a manned vehicle. Also, knowing full well that the Dragon would initiate its orbital flying in December of 2010, she told the committee, flatly, that SpaceX could fly astronauts to the ISS in “three years after we initiate." This took the other witnesses giving testimony in that same Congressional hearing quite by surprise- because they had just stated it would take them four to seven years to accomplish the same feat. As of this writing it has been four and one half years after SpaceX "initiated" Dragon's orbital flights and they are no where near flying astronauts. The schedule that SpaceX gave to the Congress at that same time showed that their Dragon spacecraft would be making its 14th cargo resupply flight to the ISS in the beginning of 2014. Thus, many in the spaceflight community saw SpaceX as the basket into which NASA should place all of its eggs.
SpaceX has lagged far behind in their projected abilities as testified to the Congress. It has been four years since Shotwell gave that ambitious statement about flying crews and they are nowhere close to actually lofting astronauts. Additionally, the Dragon spacecraft had made just three cargo re-supply flights to the ISS by the beginning of 2014, instead of the projected 14. The only claim that SpaceX made to that session of Congress that seems to have held up is the fact that the version 1 of Dragon was designed from the start to be man-rated, yet we now have a version 2 of Dragon proposed as SpaceX’s manned vehicle.
My main question here would be that since the United States is looking to fly US crews aboard US vehicles as soon as possible and “commercial” providers are supposed to have that as a part of their mission, would it not be better for our nation if SpaceX had unveiled a fully flight capable version 1 Dragon rather than a glitzy prototype of something that has not flown and probably will not fly anytime soon?
The propulsive landing system alone on the Dv2 is going to require extensive flight testing in all sorts of failure modes. Yes, I know that if two go out it can still land safely. What about other modes? If the vehicle is tumbling through the upper atmosphere can the system recover- completely, to the ground. Yes, I know they are retaining the parachute back-up. What about the dead zone, when the vehicle is too low for the chutes to deploy but still high enough to kill the crew on impact? How reliable will the new system of super draco motors be after having been in space for the longest period time that the Dv2 is expected to be on-orbit? How about longer than that? And these are just a very few of the off-the-cuff areas that will need to be flight tested on just the innovative recovery system alone. When you throw in all of the other areas that will need to be flight tested on this new vehicle, and make no mistake- this IS a totally new vehicle even though it carries the moniker of “Dragon” on its side, how many years before it can fly with NASA astronauts and civilian scientists aboard?
My guess would be that if SpaceX is determined to use the Dv2 as its human spaceflight vehicle, it will likely be hung up in testing until 2018 or 2019. Of course I disregard SpaceX’s predictions as to the flight date. As proof I will point to the claims made in front of the Congress. Their “two years” were up more than a year ago, they made their third resupply to the ISS in 2014 rather than their 14th and even their big unveiling show for Dv2 started 22 minutes late. “On-time, on-date” is a question when it comes to SpaceX.
As a fan of SpaceX and as a manned spaceflight historian what I would like to see happen is for them to fly crews to the ISS aboard flight-proven vehicles as soon as possible. Instead what I am seeing is someone’s fanciful mock-up of Fireball XL5. Again I know that Musk has stated that what he unveiled that night is a flight article. But, I ask myself, “flight?” “When?”