SpaceX will launch its last new Dragon cargo spacecraft

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Dragon soon to launch to the International Space Station is the latest cargo version of the spacecraft the company expects to build, with one more crewed spacecraft under construction.

In a Nov. 18 update on the upcoming SpaceX CRS-26 cargo mission to the station, NASA and SpaceX announced that the launch, previously scheduled for Nov. 21 from the Kennedy Space Center, had slipped a day to November 22 at 3:54 am. p.m. Eastern. A launch that day would allow Dragon to dock with the station on Nov. 23 at 5:57 a.m. east.

Sarah Walker, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said the delay stemmed from repairs to the spacecraft that were required after a leak was detected in the spacecraft’s thermal control system during pre-launch processing. The leak was traced to a single gasket whose rubber seal was damaged, which has since been repaired.

Those repairs “put us almost behind” the schedule for a Nov. 21 launch, he said, so we decided during the mission’s launch readiness review to attempt a Nov. 22 launch. Weather forecasts predict only a 30% chance of acceptable conditions that day, however.

The launch will be the first flight of this spacecraft, called C211, the third cargo version of the SpaceX-built Dragon 2 spacecraft. Since the start of the Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract with the CRS-21 mission in late 2020, SpaceX has alternated between two other Dragon cargo spacecraft, named C208 and C209.

In addition to the three Dragon cargo spacecraft, SpaceX has four Crew Dragon spacecraft, and Walker revealed at the briefing that SpaceX plans to build a fifth and likely final Crew Dragon. “This is the last new Dragon cargo spacecraft we plan to build,” he said. “We recently decided to build one more manned spaceship.”

Previously, SpaceX officials said four Crew Dragon spacecraft would be enough to meet its future needs. In a NASA briefing in October 2021, Walker said the four Crew Dragon vehicles the company was then designing “seem sufficient to meet our manifesto, which is thriving right now.”

In the November 18 update, he attributed the decision for a fifth Crew Dragon to the further development of this manifesto. This included NASA’s decision to add eight ISS missions to SpaceX’s existing commercial crew contract, as well as an “exciting commercial human spaceflight manifesto.” The new Crew Dragon, he said later in the call, should be ready for a first flight “in the 2024 timeframe.”

While each Crew Dragon or cargo Dragon mission requires a new fuselage section, which is jettisoned before re-entry, the capsule itself is designed for multiple flights. “About 15 flights is what we’re aiming for right now,” he said. Some components aren’t likely to fly that many times, but overall each spacecraft should be capable of that many missions, he added. “The vast majority of the capsule should be in 15 flights.”

If the CRS-26 mission does not launch on Nov. 22, Walker said the next launch opportunities are Nov. 26 and 27. The gap, he said, is due in part to airspace restrictions during the Thanksgiving holiday season, as well as orbital engineering and the need to renew some of the cargo on board.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *