Hadfield Impressed With Dragon, Sees Much Work to Do

Dragon Version 2. (Credit: SpaceX)
Dragon Version 2. (Credit: SpaceX)

C/NET.com has an interesting interview with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield about the unveiling of SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft on Thursday. Don’t be misled by the headline [Astronaut: Musk’s capsule no substitute for Soyuz (Q&A)]; Hadfield is actually quite complimentary. However, he does provide some really excellent insights into what it takes to get from what Elon Musk unveiled last week to a functioning spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts into space.

Hadfield: It’s really impressive what Elon Musk and SpaceX have done. They’ve only been around a dozen years, and they’ve done what most countries have been unable to do: build a rocket that can take heavy payloads to Earth orbit, build a spaceship that can navigate and dock with the Space Station, and then undock, and return to Earth.

What we saw yesterday shows the vehicle’s shape, which is really important. That constrains everything. It shows the possibility of seven people fitting inside. It shows the possibility of what an avionics display might look like. Of course, it’s missing all the critical stuff: the lights, and all of the integration and complexity that goes into making that habitable and safe for crew. And there’s all sorts of engineering questions that weren’t addressed yesterday. But you have to start somewhere, and they have a really impressive track record over the last 10 or 12 years, and they’ve put together a really capable group of people.

Musk sort of admitted something similar the other night, saying it would take about a billion dollars to get the ship ready to carry crews into space. That’s a far cry from a few years ago, when SpaceX was claiming it needed only a few hundred million dollars to make Dragon crew ready. However, that was prior the finalization of NASA’s certification process. In the meantime, Dragon have evolved from plopping down on the ocean to making a propulsion touchdown on land.

Musk said the other night that he anticipated a test flight in late 2015, followed by a crewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in mid-2016. If all went well, the first Dragon V2 would ferry crews to the space station on a commercial basis by the end of 2016, about a year ahead of NASA’s current schedule.

Given Musk’s past optimism and the tendency of SpaceX’s already crowded manifest to slide to the right, I would expect that schedule to slip. Aiming to fly a year earlier will provide a margin for the company to meet NASA’s schedule.