According to comments made by NASA and SpaceX executives at a briefing before Crew Dragon’s third operational astronaut flight, the fleet of reusable Dragon spacecraft that the firm intends to construct and cycle in support of NASA missions is becoming increasingly precise.
According to Sarah Walker, Director of Dragon Mission Management at SpaceX, the next NASA Crew-3 mission would mark the first flight of a new Crew Dragon capsule (presumably C210), which will be launched into orbit on a previously flown Falcon 9 rocket (B1067). Initially launched on June 3, 2021, B1067 carried the second modified Cargo Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) before returning to Earth and making a soft landing on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You. Despite the fact that B1067’s Crew-3 launch will be far from breaking SpaceX’s own turnaround records, it will be the second time NASA has launched people on a flight-proven commercial rocket.
Flight-proven rocket (Falcon 9 B1062) carried NASA astronauts for the first time in April 2021 as part of Crew-2, Dragon’s second operational crew launch and first crew ‘rotation,’ which took place on the first day of April. As well as being flight-tested, Crew-2’s Crew Dragon was also used to assist SpaceX’s first Demo-2 astronaut launch in mid-2020 — an accomplishment that was arguably even more remarkable than the first.
Five months later, SpaceX launched the world’s first all-private crew of astronauts as part of the Inspiration4 mission, which was mainly focused on charitable endeavors. Once again, a flight-proven rocket launched an orbit-proven Crew Dragon capsule that carried four astronauts, extending the limits of human-rated reusability even further with the first usage of a Falcon 9 that had previously flown on a crewed mission for the first time.
As a result, Crew-3 will continue the brand new pattern of sending professional NASA and foreign astronauts on flight-proven SpaceX rockets, which began with the launch of Crew-1. A successful launch, which is scheduled to take place no earlier than 2:43 a.m. EDT (06:43 a.m. UTC) on Saturday, October 30th, will mean that SpaceX has successfully launched more crewed Dragons with flight-proven Falcon 9 boosters than it has with new boosters – despite the fact that the company completed its first astronaut launch less than a year and a half ago, when it launched its first astronaut into space.
While Crew-3 will not be the third crewed launch of a flight-proven Dragon, it will serve a vital role in the company’s ongoing effort to build a fleet of reusable, orbital spacecraft by slowly but steadily launching new vehicles. It will most likely be Dragon 2 Capsule #10 (C210), and it will be the third Crew Dragon to join SpaceX’s fleet of two operating crew capsules – C206 (Endeavor) and C207 (Red Dragon) (Resilience). Walker went on to say that Crew-4, which is currently slated to launch NET April 2022, would also include the debut of a new Crew Dragon capsule, bringing the company’s total crew capsule fleet to four vehicles.
Those four spacecraft, each of which is approved to perform at least five NASA missions, should be sufficient to meet at least a few years’ worth of SpaceX’s near-term demand for Crew Dragon launch services. A number of additional capsules may be required if the business is unable to get extended certification beyond five missions or if the company continues to transport public and private astronauts on Dragon far into the mid- to late-2020s and beyond. SpaceX would likely be charged with assisting one NASA Crew Dragon flight per year between 2023 and 2030 assuming Boeing’s Starliner eventually becomes operational in 2023 and NASA continues to maintain the International Space Station into the 2030s and beyond, according to theoritical predictions.
Walker also disclosed that SpaceX would launch two more Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft on its CRS-24 and CRS-25 missions in December 2021 and May 2022, respectively, bringing the total number of uncrewed Dragon capsules in the company’s fleet to four capsules. The International Space Station will likely continue to receive cargo twice a year for as long as the station is in service, needing about 12-18 more Cargo Dragon flights between now and 2030. Dragon may be phased out as soon as Starship becomes operational and NASA-certified for regular crew and cargo flights, but that milestone is likely still many years away, guaranteeing that the spacecraft will continue to operate for at least the next 5-10 years.
In the meanwhile, SpaceX’s fleet of reusable Dragon spacecraft is expected to more than quadruple in the next eight months, going from four to eight spacecraft.