Science

SpaceX launches the last new Dragon cargo spacecraft

SpaceX launches the last new Dragon cargo spacecraft

WASHINGTON — The SpaceX Dragon soon to launch to the International Space Station is the last cargo version of the spacecraft the company expects to build, with another spacecraft under construction.

In a Nov. 18 briefing on SpaceX’s upcoming CRS-26 cargo mission to the station, NASA and SpaceX announced that the launch, previously scheduled for Nov. 21 from Kennedy Space Center, has been pushed back a day to Nov. 22 at 3: 54. pm Eastern. A launch that day would have allowed Dragon to dock with the station on November 23 at 5:57 a.m. ET.

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

Those repairs put us “behind” the Nov. 21 launch schedule, she said, leading to a decision at the mission’s launch readiness review to attempt a Nov. 22 launch instead. Weather forecasts predict only a 30% chance of acceptable conditions that day.

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

In addition to the three cargo Dragon 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,” she said. “We recently decided to build another manned spacecraft as well.”

Previously, SpaceX executives said four Crew Dragon spacecraft would be enough to meet its future needs. At a NASA briefing in October 2021, Walker said the four Crew Dragon vehicles the company was planning at the time “seem to be sufficient to meet our manifesto, which is currently moving forward.”

At a Nov. 18 briefing, she attributed the decision on the fifth Crew Dragon to further growth of that manifesto. That included NASA’s decision to add eight ISS missions to SpaceX’s existing commercial crew contract, as well as “an exciting commercial manifesto for human spaceflight.” The new Crew Dragon, she said later in the call, should be ready for first flight “in the 2024 timeframe.”

While each Crew Dragon or Cargo Dragon mission requires a new trunk section, which is jettisoned before re-entry, the capsule itself is designed for multiple flights. “About 15 flights is what we’re targeting right now,” she said. Some components probably won’t fly that many times, but overall any spacecraft should be capable of that many missions, she added. “The vast majority of the capsule should be on 15 flights.”

If the CRS-26 mission does not launch on Nov. 22, Walker said the next launch options are Nov. 26 and 27. The gap, she said, is due in part to airspace restrictions during the Thanksgiving holiday, as well as orbital mechanics and the need to refresh some of the ship’s cargo.



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