This story was updated at 1 p.m. ET to reflect the successful launch of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft and its docking at the International Space Station on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2018. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket launched the Dragon into low Earth orbit about 10 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and then the booster returned to Earth and landed on SpaceX’s landing pad near the launch site. This marks the 11th successful recovery of a booster that has flown before, according to SpaceX officials.
The first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station, SpaceX’s Dragon 1 is a revolutionary vehicle that heralds a new era of space exploration.
With its launch in 2010, it became the first privately-owned and operated spacecraft to be launched into Earth orbit and recovered successfully.
The original SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was developed with private funding. Its two stages use liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 as propellants in a gas-generator power cycle.
The Dragon spacecraft can transport both pressurized and unpressurized cargo.
It is designed to be able to function autonomously for extended periods of time, allowing it also to serve as an independent research platform for science experiments from crew members on board the International Space Station or elsewhere.
What is SpaceX Dragon?
The SpaceX Dragon is a space capsule that has been used to supply the International Space Station with cargo since 2012.
It can carry up to 8,000 pounds of cargo and is outfitted with 18 cubic feet of pressurized volume.
The spacecraft can reach orbit by launching on either a SpaceX Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rocket. For its return trip to Earth, the Dragon uses parachutes and thrusters for a soft landing.
It then comes back to Earth with its supplies for reuse in future missions.
Alongside its robotic arm, this makes it an important piece of equipment for supporting experiments on board the ISS.
A version designed to carry humans—the Dragon V2—has also been launched twice so far and will continue to be used as NASA begins crewed missions from American soil again in 2020.
The last mission expected from SpaceX’s original crewed model is currently scheduled for April 2019, when it will transport NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet back home after their six-month stay at the ISS.
The current crewed Dragon is an upgraded version, which was unveiled in 2014.
These Dragons are more spacious than their predecessors and offer improved life support systems as well as solar arrays, both of which allow them to fly longer distances without docking with the station first.
These Dragons are capable of being reused 10 times, said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president for build and flight reliability at SpaceX during the briefing on Nov. 18th.
So if you just do some simple math there’s really no reason why we need anything other than these Dragons going forward.
The Last Cargo Spacecraft
The final iteration of SpaceX’s cargo spacecraft, the Dragon 2, is set to launch from Kennedy Space Center on November 26th.
This is the last cargo spacecraft that will be built by SpaceX. While there are still two crewed Dragons under construction, the company has said they’ll be using those for manned spaceflight and not for carrying supplies and experiments to the International Space Station (ISS).
So this will be their last new cargo vehicle of its kind. Dragon 2 is really a beautiful spaceship, said Hans Koenigsmann, a SpaceX vice president, at an Nov. 18 briefing about the upcoming mission.
It’s going to provide six times more payload capability than what we can do with the current Dragon 1 and it’s designed to fly ten times in any given year.
Koenigsmann went on to say that this will allow them to keep up with all the customers who want to use Dragon. He also mentioned some improvements being made before Thursday’s launch–including some additional shielding for sensitive materials–and reaffirmed that, Dragon is safe.
One question left unanswered was why this isn’t the first flight of Dragon 2 instead of CRS-26.
There were no answers provided as to whether or not NASA requested for SpaceX to carry out this specific mission as a demonstration, or if it was just because of availability.
What we know is that even though these missions may seem mundane and unimportant to outsiders, watching a robot ship go into orbit feels like magic every time.
Why is this the last one?
The last new cargo Dragon will soon be on its way to the International Space Station and mark the end of new missions for the spacecraft.
The space company’s Vice President for Mission Assurance, Hans Koenigsmann, said at a briefing this past November 18th that SpaceX is building one more crewed version of the spacecraft.
It is expected to fly sometime in December 2019. It has been a very successful vehicle, said Koenigsmann about how many launches have taken place with the Dragon.
We were able to launch 17 times in less than six years. This will not be the last time we see the spacecraft though as it will continue to make trips back and forth from Earth and space stations, supplying astronauts with food and other supplies.
One of these flights will take place in April 2020 where NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin are set to head into orbit aboard a Crew Dragon spaceship.
The last Dragon mission will close out an incredible era in American spaceflight, he added, noting that after an unprecedented three-decade span, US vehicles would no longer deliver crew or critical cargo to the station.
What’s next for SpaceX?
The company has been building its crewed Dragon 2 spacecraft, which will be capable of carrying up to seven astronauts at a time.
They are planning their first crewed flight for April 2019, with the first passenger-carrying mission for July 2019.
The company also plans to build a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit called Starlink that will provide high-speed internet to people all around the globe.
If successful, it could have a major impact on our society and economy by bringing affordable internet access to billions who currently don’t have it.
It’s hard to estimate how much such an endeavor would cost, but recent reports estimate it’ll cost between $10 billion and $30 billion over the course of several years.