SpaceX Crew Dragon Gets Major Design Change Due to Failure

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As The Latest Dragon Capsule Falls Under Parachutes, So Too Will the Crew Version.

SpaceX won the bid to design the craft that would carry American astronauts from the U.S. into orbit. That was back the Bush era. A major factor in that decision at the time was the ability to safely land a craft back on Earth. In fact, that was a major feature of the Space Shuttle program that preceded the new partnership NASA has with the private sector. The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule was designed with the ability for a “soft landing” using propulsion engines to guide the craft to a landing pad. However recent findings from an investigation into a firey test failure back in April.

Changes to Be Implemented Will Take Away Propulsive “Soft Landing”

SpaceX Dragon capsule launch

SpaceX Dragon capsule launch

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Engineers at SpaceX designed the Crew Dragon with the idea of it floating gently down to Earth anywhere it wanted. It appears that dream went up in smoke in April, though. An extensive investigation recently revealed that the cause of that explosion and a fault in the capsule’s fuel delivery system appears to be the culprit. Initially, officials assumed the SuperDraco engines exploded because of a flaw in the engines themselves. With NASA growing more and more impatient by the day, however, engineers had to find a workaround that would allow the SpaceX Crew Dragon to get astronauts off the ground from American soil as soon as possible. 

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The fault in the fuel delivery system came down to a one-way valve that leaked propellant into places it wasn’t supposed to be. The workaround is a single-use valve that basically eliminates the ability for a controlled soft landing using the SuperDraco engines. The engines can still be fired, but not until they absolutely need to be used. In other words, they can be fired and will burn until all of the fuel is used up. That is a far cry from the original vision and design.

While a soft landing is ideal, the SpaceX Crew Dragon is already way behind schedule. NASA continues to send American astronauts to Russia to hitch rides into space, and they’re getting really tired of it. So for now, it seems the agency will settle for the capsule landing like all of the other Dragon capsules. They’ll drop into the ocean with parachutes.  

Emergencies, Though…

Even though the Crew Dragon won’t use the SuperDraco engines for soft landings, they are still an integral part of the craft.  The craft’s Launch Escape System (LES) depends on the engines, so they will still be there. Now, however, they are relegated to emergency use only. Meaning that in the event of an abort, the crew could fire the engines and separate from the Falcon rocket. This would allow the crew to safely splashdown with the use of parachutes. 

Crew Dragon’s Future

When Musk and Co. announced the SpaceX Crew Dragon, they envisioned it as the first vehicle to carry humans to Mars. That vision changed a while back when SpaceX announced the Starship program. Now, in light of these changes, and NASA’s challenge to the company last week, it appears the Crew Dragon program may be short-lived. The SpaceX Crew Dragon may carry American astronauts to the ISS and back a few times. However, if SpaceX can put Starship on the Moon by 2021, as they claim they can, then it may be the end for the Crew Dragon concept. 


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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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