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
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
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.
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
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.