Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) says it will launch its Falcon 9 rocket at least 17 more times before it is ready to fly humans, with nine of those flights carrying the Dragon capsule it is developing for cargo missions to the International Space Station.
SpaceX says it needs to make only three modifications to the Dragon capsule it flew to orbit and recovered last month to be ready to deliver crewmembers to the station. The Hawthorne, Calif.-based company has proposed a schedule for making those mods under the second round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDEV-2) effort, which hopes to award about $200 million in Space Act agreements running as long as 14 months by March.
Based on work started last summer, the company plans an internal pusher-type launch abort system that may someday double as a retro-rocket system for dry-land touchdowns.
“It makes the whole thing considerably lighter and there’s less to go wrong,” says Elon Musk, the company’s founder and chief executive. “We also have the ability to abort all the way to orbit insertion.”
The company’s CCDEV-2 proposal will include milestones for initial design of the abort engine and crew accommodations, including life support; static tests of the abort engines; and evaluation by NASA astronauts of the prototype Dragon seats, control panels and cabin.
Musk says the Dragon capsule, which made its first orbital flight and re-entry on Dec. 8, 2010, was designed from the ground up for human rating. That should permit a relatively easy shift from cargo to the commercial crew transport approach favored by the Obama administration as the primary U.S. route to the station, he says.
“The inaugural flight of the Dragon spacecraft confirmed what we have always believed — the responsiveness and ingenuity of the private sector, combined with the guidance, support and insight of the U.S. government, can deliver an American spaceflight program that is achievable, sustainable and affordable,” SpaceX states in a blog describing its CCDEV-2 proposal.
In the blog, the company concedes that “there is no substitute for recent, relevant flight experience when it comes to demonstrating flight safety,” and said its manifest of Falcon 9 and Dragon flights ensures “the SpaceX system will mature before most other systems will be developed.”