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SpaceX recovers second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft for future reuse

Four days after reentering Earth’s atmosphere and splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico, SpaceX has safely returned its second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft to dry land back Florida’s East Coast.

On Thursday, July 8th, the uncrewed SpaceX spacecraft officially undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) after more than a month in orbit. When the Cargo Dragon 2 vehicle lifted off on Falcon 9 last month, it was carrying more than 3.3 metric tons (~7300 lb) of food, water, science experiments, and space station hardware – an all-time record for SpaceX and Dragon. When the same spacecraft returned to Earth 36 days later, it splashed down with more than two metric tons (4400 lb) of cargo in tow.

Nine years after Dragon became the first privately-developed spacecraft ever to successfully rendezvous with the International Space Station, it remains the only spacecraft in the world capable of returning significant cargo from orbit, making Dragon truly invaluable.

Over the course of 25 successful orbital Dragon launches and recoveries, SpaceX has used the vast majority of that exclusive capability to safely return approximately 40 metric tons (~90,000 lb) of crucial science experiments, hardware, and more from the space station to Earth.

Cargo Dragon C209 departs the ISS. (Thomas Pesquet – ESA)

Derived from the Dragon capsule’s inherent recoverability, that unique ability to return cargo from orbit has also translated into SpaceX becoming the only entity on Earth regularly reusing orbital spacecraft – second only to NASA and the Space Shuttle. While Dragon is far from the Space Shuttle’s record average of more than two dozen missions per orbiter, SpaceX has reused Dragon capsules ten times and flown capsules on three orbital missions in three separate instances.

Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2 build off of that not-insignificant foundation with several iterative improvements, resulting in spacecraft that are far easier and faster to turn around and nominally capable of at least five orbital flights each. Unlike Dragon 1, NASA has also been onboard with Dragon 2 reuse from the start, meaning that SpaceX won’t have to wait years to start reusing its fleet of orbital spacecraft.

Cargo Dragon capsule C209, July 9th. (SpaceX)
Four days after splashdown, Dragon C209 was safely returned to dry land. (Richard Angle)

In fact, SpaceX has already used a Dragon 2 spacecraft, launching two separate groups of astronauts with Crew Dragon capsule C206 in March 2020 and April 2021. Aside from representing the first time in history that space capsule has flown crew twice, capsule C206 also broke SpaceX’s Dragon turnaround record. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s next Dragon mission – CRS-23 – will mark SpaceX’s first reuse of a Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft, flying the same capsule just seven months after its first recovery.

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SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft heads home after a month in orbit

After more than a month in orbit, SpaceX’s second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft has undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) on its way back to Earth.

Delayed several days by stormy conditions in the Gulf of Mexico, the effects of Hurricane Elsa thankfully waned enough for NASA and SpaceX to proceed with the second autonomous undocking of a Cargo Dragon on July 8th. Originally scheduled on Tuesday, Dragon’s flawless Thursday departure leaves the spacecraft on track to reenter Earth’s atmosphere and splash down off of Florida’s West Coast in the Gulf of Mexico around 11:29 pm EDT (UTC-4) on Friday, July 9th.

Thanks to SpaceX’s growing expertise with Dragon 2 recovery operations and the CRS-22 mission’s preferred recovery location, science experiments among the more than two tons (~4400 lb) of cargo returning to Earth could be in the hands of their respective scientists mere hours after splashdown.

SpaceX Dragon and payload fairing recovery vessel GO Searcher departed its Port Canaveral berth on July 5th and ultimately rerouted to Tampa Bay after weather delays were confirmed. The ship was able to leave its temporary haven on July 8th and should arrive at the recovery zone around 100-150 km south of Tallahassee, Florida hours before Dragon’s planned reentry.

SpaceX’s first upgraded Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft was safely recovered on January 13th, 2021. (SpaceX)

CRS-22’s reentry, descent, and splashdown is set to occur a few days shy of six months after Cargo Dragon 2’s first successful recovery, which was completed on January 13th. Assuming that CRS-22 ultimately marks SpaceX’s 24th consecutively successful orbital spacecraft recovery, the company’s next Dragon launch – CRS-23 – is scheduled to lift off as early as August 18th, 2021, carrying another wealth of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

Cargo Dragon 2’s third launch is expected to occur just one week after Northrop Grumman’s (formerly Orbital ATK) 16th expendable Cygnus resupply mission, which is set to lift off on an Antares rocket no earlier than (NET) August 10th. Cygnus’ NG-16 mission is itself scheduled to launch just 11 days after Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule is set to attempt its second uncrewed mission to the ISS on July 30th. Deemed an Orbital Flight Test, OFT-1 almost ended in catastrophe twice in the handful of hours Starliner was aloft in December 2019. A variety major software bugs and development failures ultimately caused an abort almost the second the spacecraft deployed from ULA’s Atlas V rocket.

In September, a flight-proven SpaceX Crew Dragon is expected to support the world’s first fully private crewed launch to orbit, carrying four passengers as part of billionaire Jared Isaacman’s Inspiration4 mission. As early as late October, SpaceX could launch another four astronauts on Crew-4, the company’s fourth operational space station ferry mission for NASA. Finally, another Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft is scheduled to fly on CRS-24 in December 2021 – the seventh Dragon launch in 12 months if schedules hold.

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SpaceX’s second upgraded Dragon set to launch new solar arrays to the ISS

An all-new Falcon 9 rocket and upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft have rolled out to Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A (Pad 39A) ahead of SpaceX’s second CRS2 space station resupply launch for NASA.

Scheduled to lift off no earlier than (NET) 1:29 pm EDT (17:29 UTC) on Thursday, June 3rd, the mission – known as CRS-22 – will be the first of up to four Falcon 9 launches scheduled this month. Cargo Dragon 2 debuted in December 2020 as part of CRS-21 and returned to Earth five weeks later, marking SpaceX’s third near-flawless inaugural launch of a new spacecraft. Heavily based on Crew Dragon, which first flew in March 2019, Cargo Dragon 2 is nevertheless significantly modified to optimize it for its exclusively cargo-oriented role.

That includes the removal of internal components, windows, and – most notably – Crew Dragon’s system of SuperDraco abort thrusters to make more room and free up more mass for non-astronaut cargo.

Atop new Falcon 9 booster B1067, CRS-22 will lift off with more than 3300 kg (7300 lb) of cargo in tow. Aside from the usual science equipment, space suit parts, and consumables, CRS-22 will also carry part of a significant new upgrade planned for the International Space Station’s (ISS) basic power generation capabilities. Known as ISS Roll Out Solar Arrays, the new space station solar arrays are a direct follow-on to an experiment -ROSA – launched to the ISS on another Cargo Dragon in 2017.

ROSA was successfully tested in 2017. (NASA)

As the name implies, unlike virtually all other modern spacecraft solar arrays, which generally unfold as a number of flat panels, ROSA is flexible and deploys by unrolling. In theory, that allows for superior packing density to fit more power generation capacity in any given space-constrained launch. Indeed, many modern flagship communications satellites have begun to utilize roll-out solar arrays to expand their power supplies.

At the scale of the new ISS arrays, ROSA’s benefits are less clear, but improvements in solar cell efficiency still mean that six smaller iROSA arrays will be comparable to the ISS’ eight current solar wings. Somewhat embarrassingly, though, those new iROSA arrays will produce less power and be heavier than the early-2000s wings they’re meant to (partially) replace.

The first of at least three new iROSA solar arrays set to head to the ISS on Dragon is pictured in the CRS-22 spacecraft’s trunk. (SpaceX)
NASA seemingly intends to install six iROSAs in an agonizingly asymmetric configuration. (NASA)

While massive in their deployed state, each of the original eight ISS solar wings weigh approximately 1100 kg (2400 lb) and initially generated up to 31 kilowatts of power. Each iROSA will weigh almost 1400 kg (~3100 lb) at liftoff and generate a maximum of 20 kW. Those new solar arrays will partially interfere with the station’s older arrays but both sets will continue to work, ultimately improving ISS power generation capabilities by 20-30%.

All six arrays will launch on Cargo Dragon missions CRS-22, CRS-25, and CRS-26, likely completing the ISS solar upgrade sometime in Q4 2022. iROSA will be one of the heaviest unpressurized payloads ever launched as cargo on a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.

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SpaceX delivers new Falcon 9 booster for the first time in 8 months

For the first time in eight months, SpaceX has delivered a new Falcon 9 booster to its Florida launch facilities in preparation for the second launch of its upgraded Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft.

Known as B1067, the rocket is the first new Falcon 9 booster produced – or delivered – by SpaceX since Falcon 9 B1062 arrived in Florida around early September 2020 to support the US military’s fourth upgraded GPS III satellite launch. Scheduled to debut as early as 1:25 pm EDT (17:25 UTC) on Thursday, June 3rd, SpaceX has assigned the new Falcon 9 booster to support Cargo Dragon 2’s second International Space Station (ISS) cargo delivery for NASA.

Much like B1067, the CRS-22 mission’s upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft will also be fresh from SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California and flying for the first time. At this point in the company’s history, new Falcon 9 boosters have never been rarer. For the better part of the last nine months, SpaceX’s Falcon production operations have been heavily focused on the production of an all-new Falcon Heavy rocket (plus at least a second ‘center core’) for two back-to-back launches planned in the second half of 2021 – the first since 2019.

Shortly prior, SpaceX rapidly churned through multiple new Falcon 9 boosters, delivering Falcon 9 B1058, B1060, B1061, B1062, and B1063 for launch debuts that all occurred between May and November 2020. B1062 – the final booster to head east – arrived in Florida in late August or early September. For the next six months, SpaceX gradually shipped, tested, and delivered three new Falcon Heavy boosters – B1064, B1065, and B1066. All three are now likely somewhere in Cape Canaveral, waiting to be integrated for Falcon Heavy’s first launch since June 2019 – likely sometime in July 2021.

In a rare display of speed for SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas test facilities, the company wrapped up that new Falcon Heavy center core’s static fire acceptance testing mere days before a new Falcon 9 booster – B1067 – went vertical on the same stand for its own round of tests. The company wrapped up that process in less than two months, ultimately sending the Falcon 9 booster on its way to Florida around May 14th and it arrived at Kennedy Space Center two days later – the first such new arrival since September 2020.

In the six months since the last debut of a new booster, SpaceX has launched Falcon 9 19 times. In fact, almost five months into 2021, SpaceX has successfully completed 15 orbital missions without the use of a single new booster – the latest indication of just how fully reusability is now integrated into the company’s operations.

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SpaceX gears up for two jam-packed months of Starlink, Dragon, and satellite launches

After taking a roughly two-week break to focus on Crew Dragon’s third astronaut launch, SpaceX is ready to get back to its regular programming of rapid-fire Starlink, Cargo Dragon, and commercial satellite launches.

Kicking off what is setting up to be a jam-packed ten weeks of launches, a six-flight Falcon 9 booster, expendable upper stage, and 60 Starlink satellites went vertical at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) pad on April 27th. The booster is scheduled to launch for the seventh time as part of the company’s 24th operational Starlink launch (Starlink-24) no earlier than 11:44 pm EDT (03:44 UTC) on Wednesday, April 28th.

Starlink-24 was originally meant to launch around midnight the same day but was pushed back ~23 hours when the tugboat tasked with towing drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) suffered an engine failure several hundred kilometers offshore, requiring both a rescue and replacement tug. The 23-hour delay should leave just enough time for the drone ship to be in position to support Falcon 9 booster B1060’s seventh landing attempt.

Starlink-24 should also be SpaceX’s third and final launch this April, opening the door for as many as four more Starlink launches (Starlink-25 through -28) in May, according to Next Spaceflight. Spaceflight Now reports that Starlink-25 is scheduled to launch in “early May,” possibly just a few days to a week after Starlink-24. All four of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 boosters (B1049, B1051, B1058, B1060) would have to fly once – and one booster twice – to launch Starlink-24 through Starlink-28 between now and the end of May.

Starlink-24 will be Falcon 9 booster B1060’s second launch in 35 days and seventh flight overall. (Richard Angle)
Falcon 9 booster B1061 could enter SpaceX’s general-purpose fleet after a second successful astronaut launch earlier this month. (Richard Angle)

Now that SpaceX has successfully reused Falcon 9 B1061 to launch astronauts on April 23rd, a first in spaceflight history, it’s possible that the company will be able to move that booster into its general-purpose fleet, growing it from four to five.

Aside from three or four Starlink missions, no other Falcon 9 launches are expected in May. In June, however, SpaceX’s focus will likely shift to several important commercial missions – a bit of a rarity this year. No earlier than (NET) June 1st, a Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch radio provider SiriusXM’s SXM-8 radio satellite, less than six months after sister satellite SXM-7 – also launched by SpaceX – was declared a total loss mere weeks after reaching orbit.

SpaceX launched SXM-7 on December 13th, 2020. (Richard Angle)
Falcon 9 booster B1067 arrived in McGregor, Texas in mid-March and completed static fire testing by mid-April. (Reagan – @bluemoondance74)

Meanwhile, SpaceX is scheduled to launch its second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft as early as June 3rd, just two days after SXM-8. On top of SpaceX and NASA confirmation that a new Dragon 2 spacecraft will support the CRS-22 space station cargo delivery mission, Next Spaceflight reports that a new Falcon 9 booster – B1067 – will also be flying for the first time. That booster went vertical at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas rocket testing facilities in late March and completed static fire testing around three weeks later.

Last but likely not least, launch photographer Ben Cooper reports that a flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch the US military’s fifth upgraded GPS III navigation satellite on June 17th. The GPS III SV05 mission will make Falcon 9 the first flight-proven commercial rocket to launch a critical payload for the US Air Force or Space Force.

Even accounting for marginal delays, SpaceX will likely have another 10-14 days to add one or two Starlink missions to its June launch manifest. In the meantime, tune in to SpaceX’s official webcast around 11:30 pm EDT (03:30 UTC) to watch the ninth Starlink launch of 2021 live.

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SpaceX’s upgraded Cargo Dragon gears up for first reentry and splashdown

SpaceX’s upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft is just a day or two away from its first International Space Station (ISS) departure, Earth reentry, and ocean splashdown.

The uncrewed Dragon capsule (known as C208) and its expendable trunk section are currently scheduled to depart from the ISS no earlier than the morning (EST) of January 12th – set to be the first time an uncrewed US cargo spacecraft autonomously undocks from the orbital outpost. Previous US cargo vehicles – including SpaceX’s own Cargo Dragon – have relied on berthing, rendezvousing with the ISS and hovering close by while a giant robotic arm was used to capture and secure each spacecraft.

Cargo Dragon 2 wont be the first outright to do so: the uncrewed European ATV and Russian Progress vehicles both used the Russian Docking System (RDS) to deliver cargo to the ISS over the last two decades. However, Dragon’s CRS-21 departure will be the first time an uncrewed cargo spacecraft completes a full mission with the help of NASA’s new International Docking Adapter (IDA), as well as an IDA’s third round-trip use ever.

As early as Tuesday, January 12th, Cargo Dragon capsule C208 is scheduled to reenter Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in the ocean for the first time. (NASA)

In fact, SpaceX is solely responsible for the four total uses of the Space Station’s twin IDA ports – both fittingly delivered by Cargo Dragons in 2016 and 2019. In March 2019, Crew Dragon – flying without astronauts on its Demo-1 mission – became the first spacecraft ever to autonomously dock with and undock from an IDA port. In May and August 2020, a separate Crew Dragon spacecraft repeated the feat, autonomously docking and undocking with two NASA astronauts onboard.

SpaceX’s Demo-1 Crew Dragon became the first spacecraft to successfully use NASA’s International Docking Adapter in March 2019. (Oleg Kononenko)
Crew Dragon C206 became the second to dock with IDA – and the first with astronauts aboard – around 14 months later. (NASA)
Crew Dragon C207 (right) became the third in November 2020, followed by Cargo Dragon C208 (left) less than a month later. (NASA)

In November 2020, SpaceX launched Crew Dragon on its first operational ferry mission with four astronauts. The spacecraft safely docked to the ISS and is scheduled to remain there until at least March or April 2021. Most recently, SpaceX launched its first Cargo Dragon 2 on December 6th, 2020, and the spacecraft docked without issue a day later. Now scheduled to undock as early as January 12th, a successful departure, reentry, and splashdown will truly mark the start of a new era of autonomous SpaceX spacecraft.

Cargo Dragon 1 spacecraft were manually captured and berthed by ISS astronauts with Canadarm2. (NASA)

Unlike the largely manual berthing method used by Japanese HTV, Orbital ATK Cygnus, and SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2 vehicles took advantage of IDA’s mechanical differences to heavily automate the cargo and crew delivery process. Using LiDAR, cameras, complex software, SpaceX’s new Dragons effectively dock themselves, ultimately requiring less training and work for the station astronauts that would otherwise need to manually support berthing operations.

Used to support refrigerated or otherwise power-intensive cargo, Cargo Dragon 2 features twice as many “powered lockers” as its predecessor and is scheduled to return an impressive ~2360 kg (5200 lb) of cargo – including dozens of science experiments – to Earth. More than a decade after Dragon became the first private spacecraft to successfully reenter Earth’s atmosphere, Cargo Dragon is still the only spacecraft in the world capable of delivering substantial cargo from Earth to orbit and from orbit to Earth.

An artist’s rendering of a Crew Dragon capsule reentering Earth’s atmosphere. (SpaceX)

After detaching from its expendable trunk section and reentering Earth’s atmosphere, Cargo Dragon C208 will also become the first cargo spacecraft to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico thanks to SpaceX’s decision to consolidate its California and Florida Dragon recovery operations on the East Coast.

Also used to recover Crew Dragons, SpaceX ship GO Searcher departed Port Canaveral for its central role in CRS-21’s imminent splashdown. Once Cargo Dragon C208 splashes down at one of four available recovery zones, SpaceX recovery teams will grab and secure the spacecraft and open its hatch. Uniquely time-sensitive cargo can then be transferred to a waiting helicopter for an unprecedentedly rapid return to researchers back on land,

Stay tuned for SpaceX and NASA’s live coverage of Cargo Dragon 2’s first ISS departure and recovery on January 12th or 13th.

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SpaceX docks two Dragons to the space station for the first time

For the first time, SpaceX has successfully docked two Dragons to the International Space Station (ISS) at the same time.

Carrying roughly three metric tons (~6600 lb) of cargo, SpaceX’s first upgraded Cargo Dragon aced its inaugural orbital flight and docking attempt on the first try, safely latching itself to the space station around 1:45 pm EST (UTC-5) on Monday, December 7th.

For the second time, Roscosmos cosmonaut Sergey Kud-Sverchkov thankfully managed to pick up some of the slack from the inexplicably tiny handful of NASA photos published from two historic Dragon arrivals, capturing both Crew-1 and CRS-21 in spectacular detail.

Admittedly, the single official photo of CRS-21 thus far published by NASA offers the first screenshot-free view of SpaceX’s Crew-1 Crew Dragon and CRS-21 Cargo Dragon in the same frame, succinctly capturing the historic milestone.

The first upgraded Cargo Dragon bears down on the first human-certified Crew Dragon. (NASA)
Cargo Dragon (center) and Crew Dragon’s nosecone are also visible in this webcast screenshot. (NASA)

During NASA’s docking webcast, both retractable Cargo and Crew Dragon nosecones were also visible simultaneously, serving as a reminder that Cargo Dragon 2 is essentially a tweaked version of Crew Dragon. According to NASA, the space agency has officially signed contracts for at least nine Cargo Dragon 2 launches total, meaning that – barring additional contracts or an extension of the ISS lifespan – the final uncrewed Dragon flight could be CRS-29 in 2023 or 2024.

SpaceX itself uploaded a timelapse of Cargo Dragon 2’s first ISS docking taken from the spacecraft’s own camera not long after the milestone, offering some of the best live views of an ISS cargo or crew arrival in recent memory.

Ultimately, according to SpaceX officials, Crew-1 – launched on November 15th – kicked off what the company believes will be at least a year of a continuous Dragon presence on orbit, also meaning that all future Dragon launches (beginning with CRS-21) will see two Dragons simultaneously operating in orbit for at least a month or two. In the two-decade history of the International Space Station, only Russia’s national space agency has managed such a feat, serving as the sole provider of crew transport from 2011 to 2020 while simultaneously performing routine cargo launches.

As Cargo Dragon 2 approached the ISS, SpaceX’s Crew-1 Crew Dragon (bottom center) was easily visible for almost the entire docking. (SpaceX)
The space station’s view of Cargo Dragon at roughly the same time as the onboard camera view above. (Sergey Kud-Sverchkov)

In 2021 alone, SpaceX has plans for at least five – and maybe six – Dragon launches, including the first astronaut launch to use a flight-proven spacecraft and booster and the first fully private tourist mission to orbit. Combined with Starlink, the back-to-back operational debuts of Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2 arguably make SpaceX the world-leader in the production and operation of satellites and reusable spacecraft.

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SpaceX aces 100th Falcon 9 launch, kicks off dual Dragon operations

SpaceX’s first upgraded Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft is safely in orbit after Falcon 9’s 100th successful launch, kicking off the company’s first-ever operation of two Dragons in orbit.

Following on the heels of Crew Dragon’s second astronaut flight and operational launch debut, Crew-1 and Cargo Dragon’s CRS-21 resupply run also represent the quickest back-to-back Dragon launches in SpaceX’s history by several months. According to SpaceX comments and NASA schedules, the company’s 2021 manifest will be at least as packed with Dragon launches as 2020, packing another five (and maybe even six) orbital missions into a single year.

To achieve that ambitious manifest (potentially as many Dragon missions as ULA launches in all of 2020, for example), SpaceX and NASA will have to rely more heavily than ever on reusability. Thankfully, CRS-21 has already expanded the envelope of NASA-approved Falcon 9 booster reuse.

Falcon 9 booster B1058 sails back to Earth for its fourth landing as the rocket’s second stage burns towards orbit. (SpaceX)

In a slew of firsts for NASA and SpaceX, CRS-21 marked the first time in history a new spacecraft has debuted on a flight-proven rocket, the first time SpaceX has flown an orbital mission for NASA on a twice or thrice-flown Falcon 9 booster, and the first time SpaceX has flown an orbital mission for NASA on a booster with non-NASA flights in its history.

B1058 and the first Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft stand vertical at Pad 39A. (SpaceX)
B1058 aced its fourth drone ship landing around nine minutes after liftoff. (SpaceX)

Even further, still, SpaceX managed to turn Falcon 9 booster B1058 around for CRS-21 – satisfying NASA’s strict standards – in just 61 days, making it the third fastest Falcon booster turnaround ever. In other words, SpaceX’s successful CRS-21 launch has simultaneously demonstrated that a booster good enough for Starlink is good enough for NASA and that even rapid Falcon refurbishment is up to NASA’s standards. With an average turnaround of ~60 days, a single Falcon 9 booster could feasibly support five annual Dragon launches.

Meanwhile, each upgraded Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft has been designed to support at least five orbital missions, while Crew Dragon is already scheduled for its first reuse – carrying astronauts, no less – around four months from now.

The first Cargo Dragon 2 is now en route to the International Space Station (ISS) and is scheduled to autonomously dock – a first for a US cargo spacecraft – around 1:30 pm EST (18:30 UTC) on Monday, December 7th. Stay tuned for updates as two SpaceX Dragons prepare to meet in orbit for the first time ever.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 fires up ahead of groundbreaking Cargo Dragon launch

SpaceX has successfully fired up a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket for the Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft’s historic launch debut.

Weather for tomorrow’s 11:39 am EST (16:39 UTC), December 5th launch attempt are only 40% favorable but conditions are expected to clear up during a backup window around 11:15 am, Sunday, jumping to 80% favorable. Set to deliver some three metric tons (~6600 lb) of cargo – including a large commercial airlock – to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA, SpaceX’s CRS-21 mission will mark multiple firsts for NASA, the US, and spaceflight in general.

As previously discussed on Teslarati, barring anomalies, SpaceX believes that its November 15th Crew-1 Dragon launch marked the start of a continuous presence in orbit for the company.

“Over the next 15 months, we will fly seven Crew and Cargo Dragon missions for NASA. That means that starting with Crew-1, there will be a continuous presence of SpaceX Dragons on orbit. Starting with the cargo mission CRS-21, every time we launch a Dragon, there will be two Dragons in space – simultaneously – for extended periods of time. Truly, we are returning the United States’ capability for full launch services and we are very, very honored to be a part of that.”

Benji Reed, SpaceX – November 10th, 2020

Additionally, the continuous presence of a Dragon spacecraft in orbit also means that after all future Dragon launches, SpaceX will have two Dragons in orbit. In the history of spaceflight and the International Space Station, only Russia has routinely had more than space station-bound spacecraft (Soyuz and Progress) in orbit at the same time. If successful, CRS-21 will thus catapult SpaceX into one of the most exclusive spaceflight ‘clubs’ in the modern world.

SpaceX’s Crew-1 Crew Dragon docked with the ISS on November 16th and is expected to remain there until May 2021. (NASA)
The first Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft – essentially a modified Crew Dragon – will join Crew-1 capsule C207 at the ISS as early as Sunday, December 6th, and is also expected to spend several months in orbit. (SpaceX)

Thanks to SpaceX, for the first time ever, the US will likely have two or more recoverable spacecraft stationed at the ISS at any given moment. Prior to Dragon 2, only Russia regularly operated two recoverable spacecraft in orbit, and only for a period of a few days or weeks.

Orbital firsts aside, CRS-21 will also be the first time in history that a new space station-bound spacecraft (Cargo Dragon 2) debuts on a flight-proven rocket (Falcon 9). The Falcon 9 booster supporting CRS-21 previously launched SpaceX’s Demo-2 Crew Dragon astronaut launch debut, as well as South Korea’s ANASIS II communications satellite and a batch of 60 Starlink spacecraft.

B1058 returned to Port Canaveral on October 8th after its third successful launch and landing. (Richard Angle)

For NASA, it will be the space agency’s first launch on a twice or thrice-flown Falcon 9 booster, as well as the first time a SpaceX booster with a commercial (non-NASA) launch history has been certified to launch a NASA mission.

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SpaceX drone ship departs for upgraded Cargo Dragon launch debut

SpaceX drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) has departed Port Canaveral ahead of an upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft’s Falcon 9 launch debut.

Scheduled to lift off no earlier than (NET) 11:39 am EST (16:39 UTC) on Saturday, December 5th, SpaceX’s 21st NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) launch will mark several major firsts.

Drone ship OCISLY and Falcon 9 booster B1058 are pictured returning to port on October 8th. (Richard Angle)

First and foremost, CRS-21 will debut an upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft. Derived from Crew Dragon (also known as Dragon 2), Cargo Dragon 2 will also dock with the ISS, utilizing a smaller docking (versus berthing) port that unfortunately limits the width of cargo Dragon will be able to deliver. Aside from improved reusability, SpaceX’s newest cargo spacecraft will otherwise be largely the same as Dragon 1 as far as cargo delivery goes.

Compared to SpaceX’s 20 CRS1 space station resupply missions, Cargo Dragon 2’s CRS2 launches will also be substantially more expensive, on average, though still NASA’s most affordable option. SpaceX executives have explained that cost increase as a result of the company’s growing confidence and greater awareness of its competition. NASA has only guaranteed six CRS2 contracts for three selected providers, leaving the space agency a great deal of leverage to analyze the playing field and issue at least as many new contracts to cover International Space Station (ISS) operations from at least 2023 to 2025.

NASA’s three CRS2 providers: Cygnus, Cargo Dragon, and Dreamchaser. (NASA/SpaceX/SNC)

Thanks to experience gained through joint NASA-SpaceX CRS1 contract modifications that allowed multiple Falcon 9 booster and Cargo Dragon capsule reuses, reusability – while again not built in to SpaceX’s CRS2 contract – will assuredly play a central role for most of the company’s future space station cargo missions. Unlike Dragon 1, which was only modified for reuse with an upgrade that debuted several launches into CRS1, the Dragon 2 capsule is designed from the start to fly at least five orbital missions.

NASA has already given SpaceX permission to reuse a more complex Crew Dragon spacecraft to launch astronauts as early as March 2021, so it’s all but guaranteed that the space agency will allow SpaceX to extensively reuse Cargo Dragon 2 capsules to complete its CRS2 contract. If so, it will likely save NASA a significant amount of money when it comes time to award additional CRS2 contracts.

Equally significant, NASA also appears to be upgrading its confidence in SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rockets with CRS-21, permitting the company to reuse Falcon 9 booster B1058 on Cargo Dragon 2’s launch debut. While B1058 did support SpaceX’s Crew Dragon astronaut launch debut back in May 2020, the booster has since flown two more commercial missions, carrying a South Korean communications satellite and a batch of SpaceX’s own Starlink spacecraft in July and October. CRS-21 will be the first time NASA has allowed SpaceX to fly a space agency mission with a booster that’s supported non-NASA missions, implying a new level of trust in SpaceX.

Falcon 9 booster B1058 completed its third launch on October 6th. (Richard Angle)

It will also be the first time in history that a new spacecraft has debuted on a flight-proven rocket, as well as NASA’s first flight on both a twice-flown and thrice-flown Falcon 9 booster. If CRS-21 is a sign of things to come, life will be made much easier for SpaceX, reducing or eliminating the need to operate separate booster fleets for commercial and institutional customers.

Finally, CRS-21 will also mark the first time in history that two SpaceX Dragon spacecraft have been in orbit – or at the ISS – at the same time. A senior SpaceX Dragon manager recently noted that after Crew-1’s successful November 15th launch, all future Dragon launches would leave the company with two Dragons in orbit.

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