Cool Pics: SpaceX’s Dragon in Prep for First ISS Flight

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Some cool images courtesy of SpaceX. Above, technicians prepare the Dragon spacecraft for thermal vacuum chamber testing in a SpaceX clean room shown above in Hawthorne (Los Angeles) California. The open bays will hold the parachutes. NASA has given SpaceX a launch date of Nov 30, 2011 for Falcon 9 Flight 3, which will send a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

Also in Hawthorne, we have conducted separation tests of the Dragon trunk from the Falcon 9 second stage (shown above). Release mechanisms hold the trunk (top), with solar panel covers on left and right sides) to the stage (bottom). When activated, springs on the Falcon 9 push against the Dragon trunk. The trunk separates and the test fixture’s counterbalance system raises the spacecraft up and away.


In the Hawthorne factory high bay, we tested the Dragon solar array rotary actuator by hanging the full array from the ceiling. The actuator (top center) turns the entire array. In flight, the solar panels will track the sun for maximum energy capture.

Clockwise from upper left: First stage tank, with domes and barrels for the second stage;  all nine Merlin engines have been individually tested in Texas and then returned to California for integration into the thrust assembly; the pressure vessel for the CRS-1 Dragon spacecraft has 10 cubic meters (350 cu ft) of interior volume; composite interstage structure that joins the stages.  Photos: Roger Gilbertson / SpaceX

We are well into production with all parts (shown above) for the following launch, Falcon 9 Flight 4 and its Dragon CRS-1 spacecraft, which should be the first commercial cargo resupply mission under NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program.  Significant additional tooling and automation with be added to the factory, as we build towards the capability of producing a Falcon 9 first stage or Falcon Heavy side booster every week and an upper stage every two weeks.  Depending on demand, Dragon production is planned for a rate of one every six to eight weeks.

This week, we successfully completed a wet dress rehearsal (WDR) for the Falcon 9 Flight 3 launch vehicle at Space Launch Complex 40, Cape Canaveral, Florida.  The WDR is a significant test during which we load propellant into the vehicle and perform all operations just as we would on launch day right down to T-1 seconds, at which point we abort and detank the propellant.


Demolition work continues at Space Launch Complex 4 East, our new launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central coast of California. Recently, the crew dropped the big “hammerhead” overhanging structure from the legacy Titan IV Mobile Service Tower (sequence above). Removing the tower is a major step in upgrading the pad for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. We are targeting late 2012 to bring Falcon Heavy to Vandenberg for vehicle to pad integration tests and 2013 for liftoff.  Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in the world.

  • Rudiger

    Good luck Elon,
    It looks like Orbital Sciences will be behind the time line again. Why they purchased 40 plus year old Soviet rocket engines is still a mystery if they wanted to remain on schedule. I expect the only reason was money.
    Future contracts should require that all engines should be made in the USA. Not a half century ago in Russia.
    Of course then OSC and ULA would both be in trouble. I expect Musk will be first and perhaps best.

  • http://www.nickolai.me Nickolai_the_Russian_Guy

    Rudiger: The 40 year old Soviet engines had already been developed and tested to higher performance specifications than any American rocket. They have the highest thrust to weight ratio of any engine in the world, let alone America. And despite the fact that they were built 40 years ago, they have higher performance specifications than any American kerlox engines, including SpaceX’s

  • http://www.parabolicarc.com Doug Messier

    A couple of points:

    The NK-33s have been refurbished by Aerojet and renamed the AJ-26. But even with the overhaul, there are still issues with age (corrosion) that destroyed one of the engines on the test stand. They will need to watch that carefully. But, it’s also why they do tests.

    There has been discussion about restarting the assembly line for these engines in Russia and the United States. I don’t know where those deliberations are at present, but the limited supply problem is solvable. OSC wouldn’t have gone ahead with the project if it wasn’t. Taurus II is designed not just for COTS but as a medium satellite launcher.

    The Russians are set to debut a new light launcher called Soyuz-1 next year. It’s a downscaled Soyuz-2 with the booster rockets removed and NK-33 engines installed on the first stage. So the Russians seem to have some confidence in the engines.