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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says Crew Dragon reusability and "major improvement"



SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says the company's next-generation Crew Dragon spacecraft is a "major improvement" over its Cargo Dragon (Dragon 1) predecessors after successfully demonstrating a number of reusability-focused upgrades during the launch and splashdown debut.

Even as SpaceX's longer-term development groups aim to make the company's Dragon spacecraft all but redundant with Starship and Super Heavy, the apparent success of Crew Dragon's upgrades will be valuable for years to come. Ultimately, "major" improvements in reusability will allow SpaceX to reuse Dragon 2 more efficiently, improving its availability for both its Crew and Cargo programs and potentially reducing the operating cost and longevity of each spacecraft as the company begins to transition its workforce to BFR.

Although the question cuing Musk was non-specific, whether or not unspecified "upgrades" to Crew Dragon were able to keep sensitive hardware dry. SpaceX's Cargo Dragon program has roughly seven years of experience with launching, recovering, and refurbishing orbital-class spacecraft after ocean landings and subsequent seawater immersion. The fact that the Dragon 2 concept was almost immediately demonstrated with propulsion land-landing capabilities speaks just how annoying the problem was to try to keep an orbital spacecraft easily reusable while still relying on water landing for recovery.

As it turns out, many of the engineering solutions best known to ensure structural and thermal integrity of a spacecraft on-orbit are often at ends with the separate task of ensuring that the same spacecraft remains thoroughly water-proof through launch, reentry , and splashdown. Many of these problems center around the materials that are best for each solution. The types of polymers (ie plastics) best known for their roles in sealing certain things off from other things are often very flexible, soft, and flexible. The orbital environment is extremely unfriendly to polymers like this, where constant and extreme thermal cycling couples with vacuum, radiation, and something known as atomic (or free radical) oxygen to rapidly turn pliable polymers brittle.

Different sealants and plastic or rubber gaskets are visible all over Crew Dragon, ranging from the red gasket around the nose cone area to the white lines filling the gaps between the spacecraft's dozens of different external panels

A 'brittle seal' , as many will know, is an oxymoron. Sealants that become brittle in space often scarcely behave like sealants at all after weeks in the orbit, meaning their ability to prevent moisture intrusion can be dramatically deteriorated. From an engineering perspective, Crew Dragon's many seals and gaskets are first and foremost designed to protect the spacecraft from the elements while still on Earth, where static fire attempts and weather during launch windows may require extreme heat, cold, rainstorms, ice , and high winds. SpaceX engineers seem to have managed to solve the latter problem, while also accounting for the need to protect the spacecraft after launch for the sake of easier refurbishment

However, sealing the spacecraft from the elements – both before and after launch – is just one of many challenges for safe operations and efficient reuse. Up next, as Musk notes, is protecting Crew Dragon's 16 Draco maneuvering thrusters and 8 SuperDraco abort thrusters from water damage as well as sealing off vulnerable avionics for reuse. With regard to avionics, Musk is very likely referring to the electronics and sensing equipment housed under Dragon 2's retractable nose cone, a new feature for SpaceX.

 The SpaceX's 'DragonFly' prototype was briefly used to test Dragon 2's propulsive landing capabilities before the program was canceled. Most of the technology remains part of the Crew Dragon, however ... (SpaceX)
Crew Dragon featured intriguing panels covering its Super Draco engine nozzles, presumably meant to prevent water from entering. (NASA)

Due to the fact that Crew Dragon's SuperDraco abort thrusters are only meant to be used in an abbreviated scenario, SpaceX seems to have chosen to implement a more permanent solution for protecting them from water intrusion after splashdown. The challenge of panels like those covering the SuperDracos is that they must be easily destroyable to prevent a cascade of high-speed debris from wreaking havoc in the event of ignition. They also survive the conditions on the orbit, make it through the heat and buffeting of reentry and descend, and survive the initial impact with the ocean surface, all while keeping SuperDracos dry.

As such, it should come as no surprise to find CEO Elon Musk praising the engineering behind the presumably successful solutions to these complex problems, although credit is also due to the technicians who turned CAD files, test results, and aspirations into practice , operating hardware.

If Crew Dragon can achieve a similar level of success after spending more than half a year in space during the operational crew The Cargo variant of Dragon 2 is designed as a relatively minor modification to the flight-proven Crew Dragon capsules and slightly upgraded trunks and could debut as soon as possible mid-2020 after Cargo Dragon 1 enters retirement

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