Chair Force Engineer

Monday, March 06, 2006

Draggin' Quest

SpaceX has finally (unofficially) unveiled designs for the Dragon, a seven-man spacecraft for crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station. The launch vehicle will be a single-core Falcon IX. While the industry has expected SpaceX to branch out into manned spaceflight, the devil is in the details.

Much like t/Space, SpaceX is using a gumdrop-shaped capsule based on the old Discoverer / Corona series. It can truly be said that similar requirements dictate similar solutions. Aside from shape and size, that's where the similarities end.

In a sense, the SpaceX Dragon is less risky when compared to the t/Space CXV. Dragon's propulsion system is housed in an expendible service module on the wide end of the capsule, while t/Space had a self-contained propulsion system that could presumably be reused after each mission. Because the wide end of Dragon is covered by the propulsion module, the docking system is on the "nose" of the capsule. This hinge line creates a potential weakness in the thermal protection system.

SpaceX is predicting a 2009 first flight of Dragon, making it eligible for Robert Bigelow's "Americas Space Prize." However, 2009 looks dubious if Falcon I slips any further than the end of this month, or if Falcon IX misses its first flight date in 2007.

When Bigelow announced his prize a little over a year ago, I thought his deadline of January 2010 was unreasonable. If Bigelow truly wants to see manned orbital flight by the private sector, he should seriously consider dropping the time restriction. He's only giving firms five years to compete for his prize. By contrast, the less challenging X-Prize took eight years from inception to completion. It didn't hurt that the X-Prize had the genius of Burt Rutan and the funding of Paul Allen in its favor.

While SpaceX has sufficient funding and its own resident geniuses, America's Space Prize is an unprecedented undertaking. Can they meet Bigelow's unreasonable deadline, or will they take a step back, slow things down a notch, and shoot for the more lucrative goal: sustained human presence in space?