SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says the reuse of Crew Dragon is a "big improvement"

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk says the next generation of the Crew Dragon spacecraft is a "big improvement" over its predecessors of Cargo Dragon (Dragon 1) after successfully demonstrating a series of improvements focused on reuse during the launch of the vehicle and the launch of splashdown.

Even when SpaceX's longer-term development groups try to make the company's Dragon spacecraft redundant with Starship and Super Heavy, the apparent success of the Crew Dragon upgrades will be valuable in the years to come. Ultimately, the "important" improvements in reuse will allow SpaceX to reuse Dragon 2 much more efficiently, improving availability for its Crew and Cargo programs and potentially reducing the operational cost and longevity of each spacecraft as it The company begins to make the transition from its workforce to BFR.

Yes. Sensitive propulsion and avionics remained dry. Great job of the SpaceX Dragon engineering team. Great improvement over the Dragon 1.

– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 29, 2019

Although the question cuing Musk was not specific, the CEO of SpaceX immediately focused his response on whether unspecified "updates" of Crew Dragon could keep sensitive hardware dry. SpaceX's Cargo Dragon program has approximately seven years of experience in launching, recovering and restoring orbital clbad spacecraft after landings in the ocean and subsequent immersion in seawater. The fact that the Dragon 2 concept was demonstrated almost immediately with propulsive ground landing capabilities speaks to how annoying the problem was in trying to keep an orbital spacecraft easily reusable and at the same time relying on the landing in the water to the recuperation.

As a result, many of the best-known engineering solutions to ensure the thermal and structural integrity of an orbiting spacecraft often end up with the separate task of ensuring that the spacecraft itself remains completely impervious to launch, reentry and splash. . Many of these problems focus on the best materials for each solution. The type of polymers (ie plastics) best known for their function of sealing certain things from other things is often very flexible, soft and flexible. The orbital environment is extremely hostile to polymers like this, where constant and extreme thermal cycles combine with vacuum, radiation and something. known as atomic oxygen (or free radical) to quickly make flexible polymers brittle.

Different plastic or rubber seals and joints are visible throughout the Crew Dragon, from the red seal around the cone area of ​​the nose to the white lines that fill the spaces between the dozens of different outer panels of the spacecraft.

A "fragile seal," as many will know, is an oxymoron. Sealants that become brittle in space often barely behave like sealers after weeks (or months) in orbit, which means that their ability to prevent moisture intrusion can deteriorate dramatically. From an engineering point of view, the Crew Dragon seals and boards have as their main objective to protect the spacecraft from the elements while they are still on Earth, where the static fire attempts and the weather during the launch windows they might require it to withstand extreme heat, cold, storms and ice. , and strong winds. SpaceX engineers seem to have managed to solve this last problem while explaining the need to protect the spacecraft. after Launch for the sake of an easier renovation.

However, sealing the spacecraft from the elements, both before and after the launch, is just one of the many challenges for safe operations and efficient reuse. The next step, as Musk points out, is to protect the Draco Draco 16 maneuver propellers from Draco and the 8 SuperDraco override thrusters from water damage, as well as the isolation of vulnerable avionics for reuse. With respect to avionics, it is very likely that Musk refers to the electronics and detection equipment located in the retractable cone of Dragon 2, a new feature of SpaceX.

The prototype & # 39; DragonFly & # 39; of SpaceX was used briefly to test the propulsive landing capabilities of Dragon 2 before the program was canceled. Most of the technology is still part of Crew Dragon, however ... (SpaceX)
Crew Dragon featured intriguing panels that covered their Super Draco engine nozzles, supposedly designed to prevent water from entering. (POT)

Due to the fact that Crew Dragon's SuperDraco override thrusters should only be used in an override scenario of the same name, SpaceX seems to have opted to implement a more permanent solution to protect them from water intrusion after splashing. The challenge of panels such as those that cover the SuperDracos is that they must be easily destructible to prevent a cascade of high-speed debris from wreaking havoc in case of ignition. They also have to survive the conditions of the orbit, overcome the heat and damping of the reentry and offspring, and survives the initial impact with the surface of the ocean, while keeping SuperDracos dry.

As such, it should not be surprising to find CEO Elon Musk praising the engineering behind the supposedly successful solutions for these complex problems, although credit is also owed to the technicians who converted the CAD files, test results and hardware aspirations. practical and functional. .

An overview of the expected modifications needed to turn a Dragon Crew into a Cargo Dragon 2. (NASA OIG)

If Crew Dragon can achieve a similar level of success after spending more or less half a year in space during the crew's operational transport missions, improvements in the ship's reuse will ultimately benefit both Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2. The Dragon 2 Cargo variant is designed as a relatively minor modification to the Crew Dragon capsules and slightly improved trunks tested in flight, and could debut in mid-2020 after Cargo Dragon 1 retires.

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