Return to Space
Dragon, SpaceX's commercially developed craft, is a multipurpose spaceship that will function as both a cargo carrier to supply the ISS, and a manned spacecraft to ferry up to seven astronauts to the space station. Its successful orbital flight and reentry and recovery last year brought its entry into service closer than ever, possibly as early as this year to transport cargo to the ISS.
The spacecraft, like NASA’s pre-shuttle spacecraft such as Gemini and Apollo, consists of three sections. First is the spacecraft itself, which will house the crew, or cargo, depending on configuration. Then there is the service section. This contains the avionics and reaction control system (RCS) that provides both attitude control and orbital maneuvering as well as the parachutes for landing.
The third section is a departure for Dragon. It is called the ‘trunk’ and houses the spacecraft’s unique solar panels. Dragon uses solar panels for its electrical power rather than fuel cells.
Even in manned configurations, Dragon can carry some cargo. The trunk can carry unpressurized cargo even with seven astronauts. With a four person crew, pressurized cargo can be carried in the crew module.
Dragon’s capabilities are not limited to just a hop to the ISS. In what SpaceX terms its DragonLab configuration, the spacecraft can fly in space on its own, performing many of the experiments and functions done with the Space Shuttle. The extent of these will have to be tested when flights actually take place.
NASA wants to attempt to dock Dragon with the ISS on its next flight. Russia is balking. But eventually, Dragon will provide America with its own ride into space.