SpaceX will launch the final new Dragon cargo spacecraft
WASHINGTON — The SpaceX Dragon, soon to launch to the International Space Station, is the latest cargo version of the spacecraft the company expects to build, with another crewed spacecraft under construction.
At 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 the Kennedy Space Center, has been pushed back one day to Nov. 22 at 3:54 p.m. east. A launch on that day would have allowed Dragon to dock with the station on November 23 at 5:57 a.m. Eastern.
Sarah Walker, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said the delay stems from spacecraft repairs 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 was then repaired.
Those repairs “put us one shift behind” the Nov. 21 launch schedule, she said, leading to the decision during the mission’s launch readiness review to attempt a Nov. 22 launch instead. Weather forecasts call for only a 30% chance of acceptable conditions that day, however.
The launch will be the first flight of this spacecraft, designated C211, the third cargo version of the Dragon 2 spacecraft built by SpaceX. Since launching 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 Dragon cargo spacecraft, SpaceX has four Crew Dragon spacecraft, and Walker revealed at the SpaceX briefing plans to build a fifth and possibly 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.”
SpaceX executives previously said four Crew Dragon spacecraft would be enough to meet future needs. At a NASA briefing in October 2021, Walker said the four Crew Dragon vehicles the company was planning at the time “appear to be sufficient to fulfill our manifesto, which is booming right now.”
At the Nov. 18 briefing, she attributed the decision for a fifth Crew Dragon to the further growth of that manifesto. This 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 2024.”
While each Crew Dragon or cargo Dragon mission requires a new trunk section that is jettisoned before re-entry, the capsule itself is designed for multiple flights. “About 15 flights is what we’re aiming for right now,” she said. Some components probably won’t fly that many times, but in general, any spacecraft should be capable of that many missions, she added. “Most of the pod should be 15 flights away.”
If the CRS-26 mission does not launch on Nov. 22, Walker said the next launch opportunities are Nov. 26 and 27. The gap, she said, was due in part to airspace restrictions during the Thanksgiving holiday period, as well as orbital mechanics and the need to refresh some of the cargo on board.