SpaceX ships upgraded cargo spacecraft to Florida for first orbital Dragon rendezvous

SpaceX ships upgraded cargo spacecraft to Florida for first orbital Dragon rendezvous

SpaceX says it’s shipped the first upgraded Dragon 2 cargo spacecraft to Florida, opening the door for the first simultaneous spaceflight of two Dragons.

More or less a modified version of SpaceX’s rapidly maturing Crew Dragon spacecraft, the company says that Cargo Dragon 2 will be “able to carry 50% more science payloads” than the original Cargo Dragon. Cargo Dragon checked off numerous earthshaking milestones over its career, ultimately becoming the first privately-developed spacecraft to reach orbit, reenter, and splashdown; the first commercial spacecraft to rendezvous and deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), and the first routinely-reused orbital capsule.

SpaceX retired the historic vehicle after it completed its 21st successful orbital launch and landing in April 2020, less than two months before Crew Dragon lifted off on an even more historic astronaut launch debut. Prior to Demo-2, Crew Dragon completed what both NASA and SpaceX deemed an almost unbelievably flawless uncrewed launch debut in March 2019. Now, two months after the spacecraft successfully returned two NASA astronauts from orbit to earth for the first time, SpaceX is gearing up for Crew Dragon’s operational astronaut launch debut at almost the exact same time as Cargo Dragon 2 is preparing for its own debut.

The first upgraded Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft is pictured here in Hawthorne, California shortly before shipping to Florida. (SpaceX)

As of an October 10th update from NASA, SpaceX and the space agency have decided to delay Crew Dragon’s Crew-1 launch by several weeks to double and triple-check that a booster engine issue that aborted a recent Falcon 9 satellite launch has no common root with its sister rocket. Likely built side by side at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, CA factory, it’s not unreasonable to want to verify that Falcon 9 booster B1061 (Crew-1) is unaffected by the same issue that forced B1062 to abort its US military GPS III satellite launch on October 2nd.

Falcon 9 booster B1061 was static fired in McGregor, Texas around April 2020. (SpaceX)
Falcon 9 booster B1062 was tested in McGregor just a few months later. (SpaceX)

As a result, Crew-1 has slipped from placeholder launch dates on October 23rd and October 31st to sometime in “early-to-mid November,” while most external sources suggest that a mid-to-late November target is more likely. NASA and SpaceX never confirmed the arrival but Crew Dragon capsule C207 likely reached Florida in late August or early September, where teams have since been outfitting and processing the spacecraft for final inspection and closeout procedures.

Meanwhile, SpaceX says it shipped the first Crew Dragon-derived Cargo Dragon to Florida several days ago, meaning that the company will soon begin simultaneous preflight processing of two upgraded Dragons for the first time. Notably, SpaceX offered no launch target in its CRS-21 update, though NASA planning documents – prior to recent Crew-1 delays – stated that the mission is scheduled to launch NET November 22nd.

Falcon 9 B1058 and capsule C206 prepare for Crew Dragon’s inaugural astronaut launch, May 2020. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)
SpaceX’s first astronaut-capable Crew Dragon prepares to leave Hawthorne in early 2020. (SpaceX)
SpaceX’s first upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft has shipped to Florida ahead of the first orbital meeting of two SpaceX spacecraft. (SpaceX)

In other words, CRS-21 and Crew-1 are currently scheduled to launch within the same roughly two-week period – a situation that could pose some unique problems. As of now, Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2 both have to launch from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A, as the pad is outfitted with a unique tower and Crew Access Arm (CAA) that both allows astronauts to board and cargo to be loaded. SpaceX’s Pad 39A turnaround record – the time between two launches from the same pad – is roughly 10 days and that figure is likely much higher for Crew Dragon missions.

If current dates hold, NASA will have to decide which SpaceX Dragon mission to launch first. Either way, though, it would take a major delay for CRS-21 and Crew-1 not to mark the first time that two SpaceX Dragon spacecraft will meet in orbit at the ISS. If successful, it’s safe to say that SpaceX will firmly solidify its position as the only spaceflight company on Earth truly capable of doing it all – from affordable and reusable rocket launches, crewed spaceflight, and space station resupply missions to orbital tourism and more.

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