The uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on approach to the station's Harmony module. Credits: NASA

Discovering Dragon: The Capsule That Made SpaceX Big

SpaceX’s primary goal has always been focused on Mars and making life multi-planetary. The Dragon capsule has been the first step toward this huge goal

Little premise

In this article we’re gonna talk about SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, but be aware that we’re gonna refer to two different capsules:

  • Dragon 1 (Cargo Dragon): only built to transport cargo to and from the ISS, active from 2010 to 2020, now retired;
  • Dragon 2 (Crew and Cargo Dragon): built to transport both crew and cargo to and from the ISS and low earth orbit, first launch in 2019 and still active now.

Now back to the story…

SpaceX has always thought big

Concept art of sending Dragon to Mars. Credits: SpaceX
Concept art of sending Dragon to Mars. Credits: SpaceX

SpaceX’s primary goal has always been focused on Mars and making life multi-planetary, so the idea of building transportation for crew and cargo to space has been in the company ever since.

“I think it’s important that humanity become a multiplanet species! I think most people would agree that a future where we are a spacefaring civilization is inspiring and exciting compared with one where we are forever confined to Earth until some eventual extinction event. That’s really why I started SpaceX.”

Elon Musk, CEO, SpaceX [interviewed by CBS “60 Minutes”]

However, despite the company’s excitement of sharing news, insights included some missteps along the way, and the knowledge about the Dragon capsule became public just later in the development (that began in late 2004).


Who came up with the name “Dragon”?

We already know that SpaceX (and mostly Elon Musk) usually give hilarious names to almost everything they produce. How did they come up with the name “Dragon”?

Well, as happened multiple times, it was the Boss’s fault again.

Album’s cover of “Puff, the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul, and Mary - 1963
Album’s cover of “Puff, the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul, and Mary — 1963

Elon revealed that he named the spacecraft “Dragon” after a fictional called “Puff the Magic Dragon,” from the hit song by the music group Peter, Paul, and Mary. Musk said he used the name because many critics considered his goals impossible when he founded SpaceX in 2002. In fact, early on it had actually been named Magic Dragon, and t-shirts had been printed with this name.

Once again, if you don’t like losing, never challenge Elon!

NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services [COTS]

NASA’s COTS manifest. Credits: NASA
NASA’s COTS manifest. Credits: NASA

In 2004, President Bush established the U.S. Space Exploration Policy which called for a return to the Moon by 2020, and for the Space Shuttle to be retired by the end of 2010, after the completion of the ISS assembly.

Soon after, Mike Griffin became the new NASA Administrator in 2005: he challenged U.S. private industry to develop cargo and eventually crew space transportation capabilities that could meet the needs of the ISS.

The Administrator allocated $500 million over five years to stimulate the development and demonstration of commercial capabilities and fenced the funds. COTS could thus be started quickly, and NASA stood by its funding commitment made in the COTS announcement.

NASA signed COTS agreements with SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) in 2006, but later terminated the agreement with RpK due to insufficient private funding. NASA then signed an agreement with Orbital Sciences in 2008.

Independently, NASA awarded contracts for cargo delivery to the International Space Station in December 2008, to Orbital Sciences and SpaceX to utilize their COTS cargo vehicles. Interesting to note that between these three companies awarded at the time, just one, SpaceX, hasn’t felt bankrupt.


Dragon 1 development phase

The cargo and crew versions of Dragon were nearly identical (even though the crewed version of the first version of Dragon capsule never saw lights). Obvious differences were the addition of an escape system, life support systems, and displays with controls allowing the pilot to take manual control if necessary.

As of mid-2008, SpaceX was still working under its COTS contract, although three attempts to launch the basic Falcon 1 vehicle, much smaller than the Falcon 9, had failed. The Dragon spacecraft had reached the mock-up and fabrication stage.

A look inside the SpaceX Dragon capsule and its Falcon 9 rocket. Credits:
A look inside the SpaceX Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 rocket. Credits:

It consisted of four main elements:

  • Nosecone: which protected the vessel and the docking adaptor during ascent;
  • Pressurized Section: which housed the crew or pressurized cargo;
  • Service Section: which contained avionics, the RCS system, parachutes, and other support infrastructure;
  • Unpressurized Trunk: which provided for storage of unpressurized cargo and supported solar arrays and thermal radiators, it was jettisoned before returning to Earth and was not recovered.

The capsule was conceived as reusable from the beginning and could fly multiple missions. To resist the harsh conditions during atmospheric re-entry, they used a PICA-X heat shield, based on a proprietary variant of NASA’s Phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA) material, designed to protect the capsule during Earth’s atmospheric entry, even at high return velocities from Lunar and Martian missions.

The Dragon capsule was equipped with 16 Draco thrusters, a hypergolic liquid rocket engine designed in-house: they were used for attitude control and maneuvering. For the ISS Dragon cargo flights, the ISS’s Canadarm2 grapples its Flight-Releasable Grapple Fixture and berths Dragon to the station’s US Orbital Segment using a Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM).


Say cheese… It’s launch day

This SpaceX photo shows the "secret payload" (a wheel of cheese) that rode into space aboard the company's private Dragon spacecraft during a December 8, 2010 test flight. Credits: SpaceX
The “secret payload” (a wheel of cheese) that rode into space aboard the Dragon spacecraft during the December 8, 2010, test flight. Credits: SpaceX

The Dragon capsule’s first test flight carried a wheel of cheese into orbit. Prior to the successful liftoff, SpaceX officials hinted that Dragon was carrying special cargo into space, but the company did not reveal the secret payload until after the spacecraft had returned from orbit and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

The wheel of cheese was launched in honor of a classic skit from actor John Cleese in the British comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

“It’s kind of funny,” Musk told reporters after the successful mission. “If you like Monty Python, you’ll love the secret.”

NASA contracted for three test flights from SpaceX but later reduced that number to two. The first Dragon spacecraft launched on its first mission – contracted to NASA as COTS Demo Flight 1 – on 8 December 2010, and was successfully recovered following re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.


Dragon capsule being berthed to the ISS by the Canadarm2 manipulator during the COTS mission. Credits: NASA
Dragon capsule being berthed to the ISS by the Canadarm2 manipulator during the COTS mission. Credits: NASA

A couple of years later, on May 22, 2012, the second Dragon flight was launched, but before docking with the ISS SpaceX’s team together with NASA had to conduct a lot of controls and tests of its navigation systems and abort procedures.

On May 25, 2012, the capsule was cleared to dock with the ISS and 6 days later, after having unloaded its cargo supplies to the space station, it returned to Earth, landing as scheduled in the Pacific Ocean, and was again successfully recovered.

On August 23, 2012, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that SpaceX had completed all required milestones under the COTS contract, and was cleared to begin operational resupply missions to the ISS.

“We stand at the dawn of an exciting new era in space travel: one in which NASA and commercial companies work in partnership to provide rapid advances in space transportation.

This SpaceX mission is a milestone in that transition, marking the first time in history that a commercial company will attempt to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station, something only a few governments have ever accomplished.

This is a demonstration mission, a test flight primarily designed to provide NASA and SpaceX with valuable insight to ensure successful future missions.”

— Charles Bolden, Former NASA Administrator [from NASA’s COTS-2 Press Kit]


It’s time for upgrading: Dragon 2

In 2009, the Augustine Commission appointed by President Barack Obama found that the program’s funding and resources were insufficient to execute its goals without significant delays to its schedule, and an increase of $3 billion in funding, which prompted NASA to start considering alternatives to the program.

The Constellation program was officially canceled in 2010, with NASA repurposing Orion for exploration beyond Earth, and collaborating with commercial partners for ISS crew rotation and other crewed activities in low Earth orbit following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, in 2011.

The Commercial Crew Program (CCP) was born.

SpaceX unveil event of Crew Dragon, the next generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to Earth orbit and beyond. As a modern, 21st century manned spacecraft, Crew Dragon will revolutionize access to space. Credits: SpaceX
SpaceX unveil the event of Crew Dragon, the next-generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to Earth orbit and beyond. Credits: SpaceX

Dragon 2 is an upgrade of the previous spacecraft, presented in 2014, this time focused primarily to ferry crews to space. Several modifications have been made, here are the most important:

  • seats for up to seven astronauts (later changed down to four);
  • advanced launch escape system with powered abort possibilities from the launch pad to orbit;
  • propulsive landing system for gentle ground touchdowns on legs with parachutes as a backup;
  • different trunk with fins and body and solar panels;
  • autonomous docking system, protected by an open and closeable nose cone.

The propulsive landing system was discarded later in 2017, but might be resurrected in later versions.

The first uncrewed flight demonstration mission (DM-1) was launched in March 2019 and docked successfully with the ISS. After the successful return, the capsule was to be refurbished to fly again on the suborbital abort mission test flight but was destroyed on April 21, 2019, during a ground test of the propulsion system.

Since the destroyed capsule had been slated for use in the upcoming in-flight abort test, the explosion and investigation delayed that test and the subsequent crewed orbital test.


A new era in spaceflight: DEMO-2

Doug Hurley (Spacecraft commander) and Bob Behnken (Joint operations commander) inside Crew Dragon before departure for the 6 months stays on the ISS. Credits: NASA
Doug Hurley (Spacecraft Commander) and Bob Behnken (Joint Operations Commander) inside Crew Dragon before liftoff for the 6-month stay on the ISS. Credits: NASA

After nine years without a human launch from Florida, the United States of America came back into business! NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine acknowledged NASA’s potential to unite the country through shared exploration, following difficult times such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the awful death of George Floyd:

“This space program that we have in this country unites people, period, it always has. We look at the most divisive times in American history. We think about the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Not just the war but the protests. We think about the Civil Right abuses and the Civil Rights protests. The very divisive, challenging times. And here we are, all these years later, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and we have this moment in time when we can unite people again.”

The Demo-2 mission was the first launch with astronauts of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to the ISS, as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. The test flight served as an end-to-end demonstration of SpaceX’s Crew Transportation System.

Behnken and Hurley launched on May 30, 2022, from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. A new era of human spaceflight begins as American astronauts once again launch on an American rocket from American soil to low-Earth orbit for the first time since the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program, in 2011.

“Ignition! Liftoff for Falcon 9, Crew Dragon, Go NASA, Go SpaceX, Godspeed Bob and Doug!”

— SpaceX’s Demo-2 Launch Director

…and that’s not all

Did you know that SpaceX nearly built a small space station called “DragonLab”? This is another story and will need another special insight on its own. Together with the proposed plan to land a Dragon capsule on Mars, or send it around the Moon…


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Filippo Zamprogna

Filippo Zamprogna

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