Musk Drops Propulsive Landing Plans for SpaceX Crew Dragon

Article written: 21 Jul , 2017
Updated: 22 Jul , 2017
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Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2020. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is dropping its original plans to propulsively ground land the advanced crewed version of their Dragon spacecraft planned for missions carrying astronauts returning from the International Space Station (ISS) – in a decision that potentially impacts future plans for Mars landings as well.

The announcement came directly from SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk while speaking at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, D.C. on July 19.

For “safety” reasons, Musk said the SpaceX Crew Dragon will no longer have the ability to use its built in Super Draco thrusters to accomplish a soft landing on land while extending a quartet of landings legs. The SuperDraco thrusters function as the launch abort system to save the astronauts lives in case of a launch emergency.

“It was a tough decision,” Musk said when asked about his latest plans at the conference. “Technically it still is. Although you’d have to land it on some pretty soft landing pad because we’ve deleted the little legs that pop out of the heat shield.”

ISS Conference photos herein courtesy of Trevor Mahlmann / http://photos.tmahlmann.com/

Musk spoke to a packed house numbering over 500 in the conference room at the Omni Sheraton Hotel.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk discusses crew Dragon at the 2017 International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington with ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman. Credit: Trevor Malhmann

SpaceX initially developed the cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft under contract to NASA to conduct resupply missions to the ISS.

In 2014, SpaceX won a follow on $2.6 Billion NASA commercial crew contract to develop and manufacture a significantly upgraded and human rated Dragon vehicle capable of ferrying astronauts to and from low Earth orbit and the space station.

Simultaneously, Boeing also won a $4.2 Billion commercial crew contract to develop the CST-100 Starliner vehicle.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Both Starliner and Dragon can transport four of more astronauts to the ISS and back.

The unpiloted Dragons return to Earth via parachute assisted splashdowns in the Pacific Ocean using a trio of parachutes.

When Musk unveiled the Crew Dragon, SpaceX had designed it also to initially return via ocean splashdowns using four parachutes for the initial missions, but would eventually transition to the propulsive land landings in the not to distant future.

Musk also announced plans to develop another version dubbed ‘Red Dragon’ to conduct unmanned landings on the Red Planet using supersonic retropropulsion – as soon as 2020.

However Musk has now nixed those propulsive landing efforts for both the Crew and Red Dragon spacecraft for reasons of time and safety.

The inaugural launches of the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner have both been postponed has been postponed multiple times as the firms work to satisfy NASA’s strict certification requirements and deal with funding cutbacks from the US Congress that slowed development.

“The reason we decided not to pursue [propulsive landings] heavily is it would have taken a tremendous amount of effort to qualify that for safety, particularly for crew transport,” Musk said.

“There was a time when I thought that the Dragon approach to landing on Mars, where you’ve got a base heat shield and side-mounted thrusters, would be the right way to land on Mars, but now I’m pretty confident that is not the right way, and that there’s a far better approach.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks at the 2017 International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, DC. Credit: Trevor Malhmann

He didn’t elaborate the details about the alternate approach.

“That’s what the next generation of SpaceX rockets and spacecraft is going to do, so just the difficulty of safely qualifying Dragon for propulsive landings, and the fact, from a technology evolution standpoint, it was no longer in line with what we were confident was the optimal way to land on Mars,” Musk said. “That’s why we’re not pursuing it. It could be something that we bring back later, but it doesn’t seem like the right way to apply resources right now.”

SpaceX is focusing on the crew Dragon with a maiden launch with astronauts slated for mid-2018.

“It’s been way more difficult than cargo, for sure,” Musk said. “As soon as people enter the picture, it’s really a giant step up in making sure things go right. For sure, the oversight from NASA is much tougher. I thought it was tough for cargo, but it’s really intense for crew.”

“It can be a bit tough on the men and women at SpaceX, but I know where its coming from,” Musk elaborated.

“It’s the right motivation, and there will be some debates going into next year about some of the technical details. Is this right or that right? But I think we really want to make everything humanly possible to make sure it goes well, and triple check everything.”

Currently, SpaceX recovers the Falcon 9 first stage booster by deployed four landing legs in the final moments of the precision guided propulsive touchdown either on land or on ocean going platforms.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster deploys quartet of landing legs moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely nine minutes after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 3 June 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

To date SpaceX has successfully demonstrated the recovery of thirteen boosters.

Furthermore SpaceX engineers have advanced to the next step and successfully recycled, reflown and relaunched two ‘flight-proven first stages this year in March and June of 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk and SES CTO Martin Halliwell exuberantly shake hands of congratulation following the successful delivery of SES-10 TV comsat to orbit using the first reflown and flight proven booster in world history at the March 30, 2017 post launch media briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida- as seen from the crawlerway. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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3 Responses

  1. ProfMOZ says

    It is because of those regulations, we have not gone to the moon or mars.
    Those “safety regulations” are keeping the future on hold. No advancement is possible without risk. Yes, minimizing that is important, but vastly exaggerated.
    A combination of parachute and propulsive landing would be the answer.
    One answer why it is now scrapped is, BOEING has exerted its influence and insisted on dropping it, because they don’t have it.
    My fear is, by the time NASA armchair scientists make a decision, the waters of the Atlantic ocean have covered their old ideas in 30 feet of water… because of all the ice on earth melting!

  2. ProfMOZ says

    afterthought… It just occurred to me 😉 that the Russians have had a combination of parachute and propulsive landing for 50 years… has NASA forgotten that their astronauts have been landing that way since the space shuttle was scrapped.

    • gopher65 says

      What the Russians do with Soyuz is different. They take parachutes all the way to the ground, and then give a tiny, fraction of a second long burst from the thrusters to kill the last few meters per second before final impact. It’s a *very* rough landing.

      What Dragon v2 was going to do was use parachutes to slow down after initial reentry, cut loose the shoots, then freefall for 25 seconds, then give a 5 second burst of thrusters to slow from the capsule’s terminal velocity to a soft landing.

      The Dragon propulsive landings gave NASA the hebbie-jebbies because there was a moderately long period of time after the parachutes were cut loose where failure of any of several key components in the landing system would kill everyone on board. They said to themselves, “if they do an ocean landing we’ll have to worry about heat shield failure and parachute failure. If they do a propulsive landing we’ll have to worry about both of those things *and* failures of the guidance computers, failures of any of the 4 sets of superdraco rockets, and failure of the system that cuts the chutes loose. That’s a lot of extra risk for very minimal reward”.

      NASA eventually deemed the extra risk not worth it for either Crew or Cargo Dragons. Without NASA picking up the development bill, the only source of funding for the propulsive landing R&D (the research that would need to be done beyond what’s already being done for the Launch Escape System (which uses the same rockets)) would be whatever money SpaceX could potentially make from Red Dragon missions, which wouldn’t have been much.

      Additionally, the idea was an R&D dead end. Unlike other technologies SpaceX is spending money on, this one had no path forward. If developed, it would be replaced with a different, superior landing system in as little as 3 years, coming from a different R&D chain. Why spend money on something that’s just going to be replaced in a few years anyway?

      All in all it wasn’t that this idea couldn’t work, it’s just that the economics of it all made it impractical. Which is a shame, because it would have been nice to use that Launch Abort System that’s being hauled all the way to orbit and back for something other than dead weight… at least on nominal missions.

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