SpaceX Clips Dragon’s Wings After Investigation

When the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft reached orbit for the first time in 2010, it was a historic achievement. But to qualify for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, the capsule also needed to demonstrate that it could return safely to Earth. Its predecessor, the Space Shuttle, had wings that let it glide home and land like a plane. But in returning to the classic capsule design of earlier spacecraft, SpaceX was forced to rely on a technique not used by American spacecraft since the 1970s: parachutes and an ocean splashdown.

The Dragon’s descent under parachute, splashdown, and subsequent successful recovery paved the way for SpaceX to begin a series of resupply missions to the International Space Station that continue to this day. But not everyone at SpaceX was satisfied with their 21st century spacecraft having to perform such an anachronistic landing. At a post-mission press conference, CEO Elon Musk told those in attendance that eventually the Dragon would be able to make a pinpoint touchdown using thrusters and deployable landing gear:

The architecture that you observed today is obviously similar to what was employed in the Apollo era, but the next generation Dragon, the Crew Dragon, we’re actually going to be aiming for a propulsive landing with gear. We’ll still have the parachutes as a backup, but it’s going to be a precision landing, you could literally land on something the size of a helipad propulsively with gear, refuel, and take off again.

But just shy of a decade later, the violent explosion of the first space worthy Crew Dragon has become the final nail in the coffin for Elon’s dream of manned space capsules landing like helicopters. In truth, the future of this particular capability was already looking quite dim given NASA’s preference for a more pragmatic approach to returning their astronauts from space. But Crew Dragon design changes slated to be implemented in light of findings made during the accident report will all but completely remove the possibility of Dragon ever performing a propulsive landing.

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New Space Abort Systems Go Back To The Future

Throughout the history of America’s human spaceflight program, there’s been an alternating pattern in regards to abort systems. From Alan Shepard’s first flight in 1961 on, every Mercury capsule was equipped with a Launch Escape System (LES) tower that could pull the spacecraft away from a malfunctioning rocket. But by the first operational flight of the Gemini program in 1965, the LES tower had been deleted in favor of ejection seats. Just three years later, the LES tower returned for the first manned flight of the Apollo program.

Mercury LES Tower

With the Space Shuttle, things got more complicated. There was no safe way to separate the Orbiter from the rest of the stack, so when Columbia made its first test flight in 1981, NASA returned again to ejection seats, this time pulled from an SR-71 Blackbird. But once flight tests were complete, the ejector seats were removed; leaving Columbia and all subsequent Orbiters without any form of LES. At the time, NASA believed the Space Shuttle was so reliable that there was no need for an emergency escape system.

It took the loss of Challenger and her crew in 1986 to prove NASA had made a grave error in judgment, but by then, it was too late. Changes were made to the Shuttle in the wake of the accident investigation, but escape during powered flight was still impossible. While a LES would not have saved the crew of Columbia in 2003, another seven lives lost aboard the fundamentally flawed Orbiter played a large part in President George W. Bush’s decision to begin winding down the Shuttle program.

In the post-Shuttle era, NASA has made it clear that maintaining abort capability from liftoff to orbital insertion is a critical requirement. Their own Orion spacecraft has this ability, and they demand the same from commercial partners such as SpaceX and Boeing. But while all three vehicles are absolutely bristling with high-tech wizardry, their abort systems are not far removed from what we were using in the 1960’s.

Let’s take a look at the Launch Escape Systems for America’s next three capsules, and see where historical experience helped guide the design of these state-of-the-art spacecraft.

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