President and COO Gwynne Shotwell says that SpaceX is simultaneously building a fleet of reusable, orbital Dragon spacecraft designed to support a range of NASA and commercial astronaut and cargo launches over the next 5-10 years.
Speaking shortly after SpaceX’s successful November 15th operational astronaut launch debut, also known as Crew-1, Shotwell revealed that the company is already in the process of building several more Crew and upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft on top of the vehicles already in the late stages of preparing for their first or second flights.
The comments ultimately confirm an unsurprising reality of the new Dragon 2 spacecraft: thanks to reusability, SpaceX intends to accomplish more than ever before with far fewer vehicles, likely saving a great deal of time and resources over the next 5-10 years.
Specifically, Shotwell revealed that SpaceX intends to build three reusable Cargo Dragon 2 capsules, one of which is already completed and in Florida preparing for its December 2nd CRS-21 launch debut. On the crew side of things, SpaceX will build “three more” Crew Dragon capsules on top of the flight-proven Demo-2 and currently orbital Crew-1 capsules. It’s unclear if this means that the new Crew Dragon capsule flown on SpaceX’s January 2020 In-Flight Abort (IFA) test will be refurbished for additional flights.
Excluding IFA Crew Dragon capsule C205, SpaceX thus intends to operate a fleet of at least three Cargo Dragon 2 and five Crew Dragon capsules, representing eight reusable spacecraft each capable of at least five orbital missions.
Reiterated by both Shotwell and director Benji Reed, the company has plans for as many as eight or more Dragon missions – including Crew-1, launched on November 15th – between now and February 2022.
“Over the next 15 months, we will fly seven Crew and Cargo Dragon missions for NASA. That means that starting with Crew-1, there will be a continuous presence of SpaceX Dragons on orbit. Starting with the cargo mission CRS-21, every time we launch a Dragon, there will be two Dragons in space – simultaneously – for extended periods of time. Truly, we are returning the United States’ capability for full launch services and we are very, very honored to be a part of that.”
After mirroring Reed’s seven-flight estimate for the next year or so, Shotwell later added that she had been hedging by adding a fully private Crew Dragon mission recently announced by Axiom Space and scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) late 2021. She also hinted at the possibility of “some other fun missions which I’ll chat about later.” All told, SpaceX appears to be gearing up for an incredibly busy year and a half of three NASA Crew Dragon missions, four uncrewed Cargo Dragon launches, and even one private astronaut launch.
Indeed, official NASA planning documents confirm plans for eight Crew and Cargo Dragon launches – including Crew-1 – between November 2020 and March 2022. In other words, even excluding the possibility of Axiom’s first private Dragon launch in November or December 2021, SpaceX is already tracking towards an average of one Dragon launch every two months (or less) for the next 16 months.
To complete that extremely ambitious manifest, SpaceX and NASA will have to lean more heavily than ever before on Falcon 9 and Dragon reusability, putting to the test whether upgraded Dragon 2 capsules are dramatically more reusable than their Dragon 1 predecessors. For reference, SpaceX’s Dragon 1 capsule turnaround record was just shy of 15 months between orbital launches. To complete five CRS2 cargo launches and three or four Crew Dragon launches in 16 months, SpaceX will have to break its orbital spacecraft turnaround record at least twice, if not three or four times.
SpaceX’s next NASA astronaut launch (Crew-2) is already scheduled to crush that Dragon reuse record by as many as five months (~33%) when it launches in March 2021 – marking Demo-2 capsule C206’s second orbital mission. Meanwhile, Cargo Dragon 2’s CRS-21 launch debut is expected to fly on Falcon 9 booster B1058, making it NASA’s first orbital launch on a twice-flown and thrice-flown booster.