This has been a very big week, space-travel-wise, because for the first time ever a privately-built-and-launched spacecraft capable of carrying a human crew (and, you know, maybe a space dog) docked at the International Space Station. Really, it’s the first private crew-capable spaceship ever to reach orbit. And while it didn’t have a human crew this time, it’s still a very big deal, and you should know about this spacecraft. It’s the Crew Dragon from SpaceX.
This is also a big deal for NASA and America because the United States has not had a way to get crews to the International Space Station (ISS) since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. As a result, we’ve been forced to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, a very reliable and proven spaceship, but it’s still not great to be reliant on another country for access to our own (well, partially, it’s an international effort) space station—or to put people into space at all.
NASA has astutely decided to farm out the space-taxi job to private companies so they can get back to real exploration; hence we enter the Dragon.
The Crew Dragon has developed a bit since NASA first announced they’d be buying spacecraft from SpaceX back in 2015 (along with Boeing and their Starliner spacecraft) and the final design that’s currently docked to the ISS is a very appealing little spaceship to ferry people on and off Earth.
On one hand, it’s a fairly conventional capsule-type design, the sort of thing we’ve been sending people into space with since the 1960s, but at the same time it’s arguably the first truly modern capsule-type spacecraft, of which the most recent other development was China’s Shenzou, which was first launched in 1999, but even that was heavily based on the ex-Soviet Union’s perennial work-space-horse, the Soyuz, which dates back to 1967.
So, what’s this new spacecraft like? The most obvious thing about the Crew Dragon is that it seems to be the first human spacecraft that was actually designed with a bit of attention paid to aesthetics.
If you compare it to something like the Boeing Starliner, which itself resembles the old Apollo capsules that took us to the Moon, you can really see the difference. The four Draco engines pods (two engines per pod) are housed in streamlined-looking fairings, there’s a sleek nosecone that hinges up and out of the way to expose the docking port instead of just leaving it exposed like on the Boeing capsule, and the whole thing just looks...good.
It looks like someone gave a shit, and that’s something new for the aggressively form-follows-function world of space hardware.
The Crew Dragon’s design differs a bit from designs like the Apollo CSM and the Soyuz in that it does not use a traditional service module that houses the engines, solar arrays, etc.
Instead, most of those systems are integrated into the Crew Dragon itself, and in place of a separate service module, there’s an unpressurized “trunk” module that can be used to bring up cargo that does not require being in a pressurized environment. In that sense, it’s a bit like the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay, just much smaller.
The trunk does house the Dragon’s solar arrays and heat radiators around its surface, along with some fins used to stabilize the capsule in the event the launch escape system is used.
The arrangement of solar arrays on one side and heat radiators on the other is very clever in its simplicity: solar arrays want to face the sun, heat radiator panels want to face away. Hence, having them on opposite sides works out perfectly.
Inside, the Crew Dragon is also far more stylish and simple than the normally very cluttered and control-encrusted interiors of most spacecraft, largely thanks to SpaceX’s use of a series of flat-screen displays for nearly all spacecraft controls. (You get the same experience in your car from another Elon Musk company.)
You can get a good look at the inside of the Dragon here, as NASA live-streamed their first entry into the new spaceship after it docked with the ISS:
It looks pretty good in there!
Just to compare, here’s the interior of a Soyuz next to the Dragon:
That’s a pretty big difference. The Crew Dragon also can seat four astronauts (SpaceX says they can do up to seven, but NASA is keeping it to four for now), and has just a bit less overall pressurized interior volume than the Soyuz:
Of course, the Soyuz’ pressurized volumes are split between the Orbital Module and the Return Module, so the interior of the Dragon likely feels much more spacious. Also, the Dragon has 1300 cubic feet of storage for cargo, which normally would have to be packed into the Soyuz’s Orbital module for the trip to the station.
Plus, because of the cramped nature of the Soyuz’s Return Module, three crew is the absolute maximum.
Other interesting things to note: the Crew Dragon can operate for seven days on its own, and can stay docked for 210 days. A Soyuz can operate independently for 30 days, but can only stay docked for about 180 or so days.
Since the main use of the Crew Dragon is to just be essentially an orbital taxi, seven days is plenty. Remember, the Soyuz was originally designed as a general-purpose spacecraft, and even had lunar variants.
For a company like SpaceX that has shown so much skill in re-using their launch vehicles and cargo capsules it’s a little odd that SpaceX has no plans to re-use the Crew Dragon capsules.
Actually, that’s not entirely true—they will re-use them, but just for cargo use, not crew. One of the main reasons for this decision is that, unlike the Soyuz or Space Shuttle or even Boeing’s Starliner (which is designed for up to 10 re-uses as a crewed vehicle), the Crew Dragon will return to Earth by splashing down in the ocean, like an old Gemini or Apollo capsule.
This means that seawater enters the equation, and SpaceX determined that contamination from salt water would make re-certification actually more difficult than just building new Crew Dragons.
Eventually, SpaceX will be able to end production of the cargo Dragon capsules and just use previously-flown Crew Dragons, and can then focus on just building one basic type of Earth-orbiting spaceship.
If you want even more detail about the Crew Dragon and how it compares to other ways of getting people into space, Everyday Astronaut has an excellent and involved video you should watch:
The big takeaway from all of this is that the Crew Dragon appears to be a very well-designed space ferry, leveraging decades of capsule-design knowledge while finally updating the basic designs and technology to create something that looks and feels genuinely modern, and actually makes real improvements to the tried-and-true gumdrop-shaped space capsule design.