SpaceX launches latest batch of Dragon spacecraft

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Dragon soon to launch to the International Space Station is the latest cargo version of the spacecraft the company expects to build, with another crewed spacecraft under construction.

During a Nov. 18 briefing on the upcoming SpaceX CRS-26 cargo mission to the station, NASA and SpaceX announced that the launch, previously scheduled for Nov. 21 from Kennedy Space Center, had been pushed back one day to Nov. 22 at 3:54 a.m. . hours East. A launch that day would allow the Dragon to dock at the station at 5:57 a.m. Eastern on November 23.

Sarah Walker, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said the delay was due to repairs to the spacecraft required after detecting a leak in the spacecraft’s thermal control system during pre-launch processing. The leak was traced to a single flange that had a damaged rubber seal, which has since been repaired.

Those repairs “put us about a shift behind” on schedule for a Nov. 21 launch, she said, leading to the decision in the mission’s launch readiness assessment to attempt a Nov. 22 launch instead. Weather forecasts predict only a 30% chance of acceptable conditions that day, however.

The launch marks the maiden flight of this spacecraft, dubbed C211, the third cargo version of the Dragon 2 spacecraft built by SpaceX. Since the start of the Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract with the CRS-21 mission in late 2020, SpaceX has been alternating between two other Dragon spacecraft, named C208 and C209.

In addition to the three payload Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX has four Crew Dragon spacecraft, and Walker revealed at the briefing that SpaceX has plans to build a fifth and likely final Crew Dragon. “This is the last new Dragon spacecraft we plan to build,” she said. “We recently decided to build another manned spacecraft as well.”

Previously, SpaceX executives said four Crew Dragon spacecraft would be enough to meet its future needs. At a NASA briefing in October 2021, Walker said the four Crew Dragon vehicles the company had planned at the time “appear to be sufficient to meet our manifesto, which is thriving right now.”

At the November 18 briefing, she attributed the decision for a fifth Crew Dragon to the continued growth of that manifesto. That included NASA’s decision to add eight ISS missions to SpaceX’s existing commercial crew contract, as well as an “exciting commercial manned spaceflight manifesto.” The new Crew Dragon, she later said in the call, should be ready for a maiden flight “in the 2024 timeframe.”

While each Crew Dragon or Cargo Dragon mission requires a new trunk section, jettisoned before re-entry, the capsule itself is designed for multiple flights. “About 15 flights is what we’re targeting right now,” she said. Some components probably won’t fly as often, but in general, any spacecraft should be capable of carrying out that many missions, she added. “The bulk of the capsule should be on 15 flights.”

If the CRS-26 mission doesn’t launch on Nov. 22, Walker said the next launch opportunities are Nov. 26 and Nov. 27. and the need to refresh some of the cargo on board.

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