SpaceX is the only entity with the capability to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), but it’s wrapping up production of the vessel that makes it possible. Following a Reuters report, Elon Musk’s spaceflight company has confirmed that it will cap its fleet of Crew Dragon spacecraft at four, freeing up resources to work on the upcoming Starship that could eventually take over from the Falcon 9 and Dragon.
The Crew Dragon was based on the flight-proven cargo version of the same vehicle. SpaceX conducted numerous uncrewed launches with this configuration before it sent its first astronauts up in a Dragon in 2020. NASA initially purchased six crewed launches from SpaceX as part of the Commercial Crew Program, but it recently added three more. In all, Dragon has launched with human passengers five times, including the first-ever civilian-only mission in 2021.
SpaceX isn’t moving on from the Dragon anytime soon—Musk and co simply feel they have enough. It will be able to fulfill its NASA contract with just four capsules because they’re reusable, just like the Falcon 9’s first stage. The company will continue manufacturing the parts necessary to refurbish Dragon capsules after each mission. The vessels are designed to be spaceworthy for ten launches with a tune-up in between. SpaceX could fly dozens more Dragon missions before it had to think about building another. This does, however, add some urgency to the Starship program.
Starship is still in the prototype phase, but the clock is ticking. (Photo: SpaceX)
After a good deal of early progress, work on Starship has slowed in recent months due to engine design changes and regulatory hurdles. So far, Starship has only conducted a single high-altitude takeoff and landing. The Super Heavy first stage, which is required for launching from Earth, hasn’t flown at all. According to SpaceX, the plan is to transition all flight operations to Starship when it’s ready. This vehicle has the ability to carry large payloads to the outer solar system, as well as provide rapid transport around the globe. It’s also the core of Musk’s pie-in-the-sky Mars colonization plans.
As SpaceX wraps up production of its NASA-approved crewed spacecraft, the agency’s other Commercial Crew partner has barely gotten off the ground. Boeing was expected to fly the CST-100 Starliner before Dragon was ready, but a series of hardware and software failures have delayed launch testing since 2019. The next uncrewed test of Starliner is expected no earlier than May of this year. In the meantime, SpaceX’s fleet of three (soon to be four) Dragons remains the sole way for NASA to reach the ISS.
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