In Depth

SpaceX Crew Dragon: what is it and when does it launch?

Elon Musk targets the first manned mission from US soil since the Space Shuttle

SpaceX plans to kick off 2019 in style by launching a new spacecraft that will eventually see the first astronauts leaving US soil since the Space Shuttle programme ended in 2011. 

The Elon Musk-founded aerospace company has posted pictures of the crew capsule aboard one of its Falcon 9 rockets on a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as it gears up for the craft’s maiden voyage next week.

Musk has shared images of the futuristic walkway that will be used by astronauts to board the spacecraft, called Crew Dragon. He also posted a shot of the capsule’s door with a sign next to it saying: “You must be at least this tall to ride.”

The South African-born billionaire confirmed that the rocket and crew capsule will have cameras so the public can follow the launch, though he stressed that the mission “will be extremely intense”.

“Early flights are especially dangerous, as there’s a lot of new hardware,” he added. 

With the craft’s launch on the horizon, here’s everything we know about SpaceX’s first manned spacecraft:

What is it?

Crew Dragon is a small spacecraft that is capable of carrying a team of four astronauts into space. 

It’s based on SpaceX’s Dragon module, an unmanned craft that is used to transfer supplies and scientific equipment to the International Space Station (ISS), says Space.com

SpaceX has used its regular Dragon on 16 missions to the ISS, though the crewed version will feature a number of updates, says Business Insider. This includes the repositioning of the craft’s solar panels, which will now be integrated into the vehicle rather than folding out when in orbit.

Musk’s company has yet to reveal the final design of the craft’s cabin, but concept images suggest the cockpit will be far more futuristic and spacious than the Russian Soyuz craft currently used to transport astronauts to the ISS. 

For instance, crews aboard the Dragon can monitor and control the craft using touchscreen panels, whereas the Soyuz vehicle’s cabin appears to be more cramped and is covered in buttons.

When will it launch?

The first mission is expected to begin on 17 January after an unspecified issue prevented the launch from taking place on 7 January, according to CNet

Crew Dragon will be placed atop one of the company’s reusable Falcon 9 rockets and the first mission will be unmanned, the tech site says. Instead, SpaceX plans to gather data on the craft during launch, orbit, docking with the ISS and landing. 

However, Musk has hinted that fans may have to wait a little longer to see the launch, as he tweeted on 5 January that the first test is “about a month away”. 

Provided the mission goes to plan, SpaceX will send astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley into orbit aboard the vessel in the summer, says Space.com.

What will SpaceX use it for?

To help Nasa and private companies to take astronauts into space from US soil. 

Currently, only the Russian Federal Space Agency’s Soyuz craft is capable of taking humans into space, with missions launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Though the craft has been revised over its 50-year existence, the Soyuz vehicle is beginning to show its age and experts believe it will soon be replaced by cheaper and more modern alternatives, such as Crew Dragon, The Guardian reports.

With Russia and the US once again vying for supremacy, it seems as though the race to space is back on.

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