Elon Musk recently announced that SpaceX is no longer pursuing propulsive landings with their Dragon 2 capsule. Not on Earth. Not on Mars. And although this might be a bummer for those of us who loved the thought of a truly sci-fi esque spaceship landing. Today we’re going to talk about the challenges surrounding propulsive landings and why sending a Dragon capsule to Mars for a mission dubbed Red Dragon, is no longer the best plan. Let’s get started
To date SpaceX has flown their cargo carrying Dragon spacecraft to the international space station 12 times. And although we’re just around the corner from seeing SpaceX launch the second generation of Dragon, Dragon 2, there’s one key aspect that’s been cancelled. The ability to land itself using rocket engines instead of parachutes. This also means there are no plans to send the Dragon 2 to Mars… Now before we get into exactly why SpaceX is moving on from propulsive landings, let’s take a look at how the Dragon was born.
The Dragon Capsule has been with SpaceX almost as long as SpaceX has existed. In 2004, the budding aerospace company had yet to even launch a rocket when they first began to develop their Dragon Spacecraft. At the time SpaceX’s plans were to get their feet wet by launching their first rocket, the Falcon 1. SpaceX also had plans to eventually build a more powerful version, a Falcon 1e and a 5 engined rocket called Falcon 5. Neither rocket left the drawing board.
In 2005, NASA asked for proposals for an International Space Station cargo vehicle to replace the soon to be retired Space Shuttle. SpaceX submitted a proposal to use their Dragon Capsule in March 2006 and later that year, NASA announced that SpaceX was chosen along side Kistler Aerospace to conduct three demonstration flights.
Come 2008 after 3 failed attempts to get a Falcon 1 into orbit, NASA would soon announce who would win the Commercial Resupply contracts. With SpaceX down to their last penny, literally everything fell on the shoulders of Falcon 1 flight 4 to succeed. Lucky for SpaceX and all of us SpaceX fans, on August 28th, 2008, SpaceX prevailed to get their fourth Falcon 1 into a perfect orbit. Just two months later, perhaps due to increased confidence in SpaceX’s abilities, NASA awarded SpaceX a 1.6 billion dollar contract to launch 12 flights to the International Space Station.
The first Dragon Capsule to fly wasn’t a full mission-capable version. Instead, to test basic functionality, SpaceX launched a stripped-down version known as a boilerplate, on June 4th 2010. The mission was a complete success and was also the first flight of SpaceX’s mighty Falcon 9.
The Dragon’s next flight, on December 8th, 2010 would be the first full test of the Dragon Spacecraft for SpaceX’s first NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract, COTS 1. Following its success SpaceX got permission to actually berth with the International Space Station for the next mission COTS 2. Berthing is sort of like docking, but for berthing the International Space Station grabs ahold of the vehicle instead of the vehicle maneuvering all the way up to the docking port and docking with it.
It took nearly 18 months, but on May 25th, 2012, SpaceX became the first private company to berth with the International Space Station. 6 days later, the Dragon undocked from the ISS. It safely deorbited, splashed down and was recovered in the Pacific Ocean. Since then, SpaceX has launched 12 more Commercial Resupply missions to the ISS. 11 of which were completed successfully. The only failure was for CRS-7, which was lost during ascent on June 28th, 2015. Despite the breakup of the Falcon 9 vehicle, the Dragon capsule would have come out mostly unscathed had it had a command to open the parachutes after break up, a command that is now in place if another similar event were to ever occur.
Although SpaceX has only been launching cargo to the ISS, their plans have been to launch humans all along. They’ve essentially been practicing with cargo so they’ll have already demonstrated many crucial components when it comes time to fly with crew onboard. The original plan for a crew dragon was to use the Dragon capsule with integrated launch abort motors called SuperDracos mounted on the side walls. This initial version was known as DragonRider.
Following DragonRider, Spacex unveiled their update, Dragon 2 on May 29th, 2014 at a very flashy press event at SpaceX’s Headquarters in Hawthorne California showing off the beautifully updated and very 21st century spacecraft.
During the event they aired this awe inspiring video which illustrates one of the most impressive features of the Dragon 2, landing softly using the SuperDraco motors instead of parachutes!
This ability to propulsively land aligns with SpaceX’s key goal of getting people to Mars. Due to Mar’s thin atmosphere, parachutes become much less effective than here on Earth and with something as big and heavy as a Dragon capsule, which weighs around 6,400 kg or 14,000 pounds, propulsive landing is necessary. Even the much lighter Mars Curiosity Rover landed using a mixture of parachutes and propulsive landing. Weighing in at 899 kg’s or 1,982 pounds, it’s the heaviest thing to have landed on Mars to date.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the Dragon 2 is the fact that those super draco motors aren’t just there for landing, but they’re also there for crew safety. Most crewed vehicles have had launch abort towers to pull the crew capsule to safety in the event of a problem with the rocket.
Exceptions to this were the Gemini Capsule which had ejection seats (yes ejection seats), and the Space Shuttle, which initially also had ejection seats for the first 4 flights but were then removed.
SpaceX has tested the SuperDraco’s ability to do a pad abort on May 6th, 2015. Despite one of the 8 SuperDracos underperforming, the Dragon 2 still accelerated to 100 mph (62 km/h) in just 1.2 seconds and reached a maximum speed of 345 mph or 555 km/h.
Once the motors push the vehicle to safety, the Dragon deploys its parachutes and makes a splash down just a few miles into the ocean.
Some time in 2018, SpaceX will perform an inflight abort test where they will use the SuperDracos to pull away from a Falcon 9 booster at maximum aerodynamic pressure, the point at which the air pressure is the greatest on the vehicle. That’ll be an exciting test to see!
So all this said, why is it that SpaceX cancelled the coolest aspect of the Dragon 2? What changed? On July 19th, 2017, Elon Musk gave us an update about Dragon 2 at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference. During the talk Elon officially let the cat out of the bag stating:
“Dragon 2 is capable of landing propulsively, um and uh, technically it still is. We’ve deleted the little legs that pop out of the heat shield. But it’s technically still capable of doing it. The reason we decided not to pursue that heavily is because it would have taken a tremendous amount of effort to qualify that for safety. Particularly for crew transport and then there was a time when I thought that the Dragon approach to landing on Mars where we’ve got a base heat shield and side-mounted thrusters would be the right way to land on Mars. But um, now I’m pretty confident that is not the right way. Um and that there’s a far better approach and that’s what the next generation of SpaceX rockets and spacecraft is gonna do.”
Let’s start off with the “technically it can still land propulsively” thing. SpaceX decided to no longer have landing legs that protrude through the heatshield. Although this has been done before, such as the landing gear on the Space Shuttle, it still ends up being quite the nightmare to qualify for human and cargo safety. Of course it could be done with the right amount of time and money, but then we get to the next point.
What is really gained by doing propulsive landings here on Earth? The benefits don’t seem to outweigh the costs. Granted, there’s money to be saved by not having to send a ship and helicopter out to recover the vehicle for an ocean splashdown, but what would the cost savings be per mission vs the cost of trying to research, develop and certify an earth propulsive landing?
On the other hand, as of CRS-11 SpaceX has committed to refurbishing and reflying Dragon Capsules… Refurbishing a Dragon that landed on land and not having to refurbish one that landed in salt water probably does save some money but, my feeling is it would take a very very long time to have the savings outweigh the cost. By then, SpaceX just might be onto bigger and better things… which brings us to the next point.
As Elon stated, landing a capsule on Mars is not the best way to land on Mars. They’ve already shown us how their Interplanetary Transportation System or Big Falcon Ship will most likely reenter and land and that maneuver looks nothing like a how a dragon capsule would land. So why would they spend the millions of dollars to lob a Dragon capsule to Mars if it’s just a proof of concept that doesn’t advance their long term goals?
I have a feeling that the people who were paying close attention to SpaceX when they cancelled Falcon 5 in favor of Falcon 9 were similarly disappointed and skeptical. Yet can you imagine if SpaceX had continued to develop their Falcon 5 and waste all that time and money chasing a system that would simply be pointless alongside the Falcon 9? I have a feeling that’s how we’ll look back at the Red Dragon mission someday once we see a Big Falcon Ship land on Mars.
Lastly let’s not forget. The Dragon capsule was designed to ferry cargo and crew to the International Space Station first and foremost. It still is performing a very critical task which it was designed and built for. Although it’s physically capable of doing more, perhaps a more refined and focused vehicle for interplanetary missions is all around a better and more sustainable plan.
I have a feeling when Elon updates us this year at the International Astronautical Congress on the Big Falcon Rocket and Big Falcon Ship, we’ll gain a lot more perspective on why they’re cancelling Red Dragon. I’m honestly expecting them to show off a next generation vehicle that can function as a new work horse here on Earth to make money, but is even more focused and capable of missions to Mars. With IAC only a week away, expect a new video from me about all the cool things we learn from the update.
So in summary, yes, we’re all a little sad we won’t see a Dragon 2 propulsively land at Kennedy Space Center followed by astronauts getting out wearing SpaceX’s awesome new spacesuits… But SpaceX changing their mind and being nimble enough to shift resources is what separates them from more traditional aerospace entities. We’ve seen the opposite be true with vehicles like the Space Shuttle and SLS where an idea is continually pursued despite it not being the most viable option. Instead, NASA, or should I say congress, falls into the same old fallacy of being so far along in something that it’d be a shame to stop, which in the long run costs so much more than just pivoting and moving on as soon as you can. In an upcoming video, I’ll be comparing the development of the Space Shuttle vs the development of the Falcon 9 in which we’ll focus on this topic more.
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Thanks everybody, that does it for me. I’m Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut. Bringing space down to earth for everyday people.