SpaceX to Test DragonFly in Texas

Dragon with integrated trunk. (Credit: SpaceX)
Dragon with integrated trunk. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX would test a propulsive landing system for its Dragon spacecraft at its test site in McGregor, Texas, under an experimental permit the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed granting the company.

The agency has issued a draft environmental assessment for testing the DragonFly reusable launch vehicle (RLV) at the Texas site where SpaceX tests its Merlin D engines.

Under the proposed experimental permit, the company would conduct up to 30 tests of the RLV to develop techniques that will allow a Dragon spacecraft to touch down on land rather than splashing down in the ocean as they do currently.

The DragonFly RLV consists of a Dragon capsule with a integrated trunk that is 17 feet high and 13 feet across at the base. The vehicle would use a maximum of 400 gallons of propellant, which would consist of nitrogen tetroxide (NTO) and monomethylhydrazine (MMH).

The table below shows SpaceX’s plan for flight testing the DragonFly RLV.

Proposed Annual Operations of DragonFly RLV
DescriptionAnnual Operations
Propulsion AssistDrop the RLV from a helicopter from up to 10,000 ft, deploy parachutes and land with SuperDraco engines; engines would five for 5 seconds2
Full Propulsive LandingDrop the RLV from a helicopter from up to 10,000 ft and land only with SuperDraco engines (no parachute); engines would five for 5 seconds2
Propulsive Assist HoppingRLV takes off from launch pad and lands with parachutes; engines would fire for 25 seconds8
Full Propulsive HoppingRLV takes off from launch pad, hovers, and lands propulsive (no parachute); engines would fire for 25 seconds18
Annual Operations30



  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I’m almost wetting myself with excited anticipation.

    The parameters for the full propulsive landing sounds interesting: fall from 10,000ft, then slows and lands softly with only a 5 second burn…yikes.

    “The DragonFly RLV consists of a Dragon capsule with a integrated trunk…”

    Very curious!.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    You need a place for the landing legs.

  • Kapitalist

    The military has used that concept for quite some time. It should not be too much of a technical challenge today. (But maybe the military lands the crew separately?)

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Elon has previously said the legs would be “pop-out”. I can make sense of a temporary leg structure for testing, ala Grasshopper, but don’t see how the trunk would be used for leg deployment. Presently, the trunk is jettisoned before re-entry. Unless this is some plan to make the trunk reusable. But then the heatshield would cover the bottom of the trunk, so how would it be accessed for cargo?. Answer me that then.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I’m afraid that I have no good answer for that. It just seems that you have to have someplace to keep the propellant and that would be a good place to put the landing legs.

  • windbourne

    Cool, but they may wish to look at what happened with the last mission first. Apparently several gallons of water were found inside.

  • jim2mars

    The heat shield is between the capsule and the truck. The later is dropped just before re-entry. It has most of the fuel, and air (if manned), and none pressurized payloads. Some of these will need an EVA or the robot arm for the ISS to acquire. Some payloads are better delivered outside than needed to go through the airlock to attach to the outside. Some are fluids that can be transferred and so they do not matter where they are. There are two versions and I believe the larger one is to support longer manned missions and such. The capsule has an un-pressurized area where on board air, possibly water, and of course the last fuel is stored. Until separation the fuel is used from the trunk. This is leading up to the NASA personnel rated Dragon Rider. This system might be a safer and cheaper way to bring back the freight version of the Dragon than dropping it into the ocean, and then capturing it with a ship and helicopter.

  • Hug Doug

    it’s a simple version of the Skycrane that they used to put Curiosity on Mars 🙂

    i wish i had a video like this when people were naysaying the Skycrane method.

  • therealdmt

    “I’m almost wetting myself with excited anticipation”, lol

    This Dragonfly thing is gonna be awesome.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I got no objection to the skycrane principle. But the ride for human passengers might be rather sphincter loosening.

    Perhaps the SpaceX animations have been a little misleading. With SuperDraco going from off to full power in 0.1 seconds, would that “5 second” burn consist of up to 50 pulses.

  • Saturn13

    This may be a Moon lander and takeoff. The trunk would hold enough fuel to land in the reduced gravity. The capsule would blast off from the trunk and have the fuel to get back to orbit or direct to Earth. I was thinking sub orbital tourist flights though. They said they were not going to do any high altitude flights in Texas, but this notice sounds like they are. Amazing.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Chill. I’ve checked, most days there is more water in the Pacific than there is in Texas. 😀

  • windbourne

    I was wondering about a mars landing and sample return

  • windbourne

    If water can get in, then air can get out.

  • windbourne

    Come march 29th, it will be interesting to see what this looks like.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Well there’s the odd thing, no report of depressurisation on orbit. Apparently, it was bobbing about for 11hrs before recovery, but copes OK for weeks in space. Also, no confirmation yet that the mystery water was indeed sea water that had leaked in.

  • Hug Doug

    i imagine that the precise mode of engine operation will be one of the things that the DragonFly test vehicle will determine.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    No doubt. But I want to know NOW!

  • Hug Doug

    SpaceX has FAA clearance to do tests up to 10,000 feet at McGregor, TX

    Flight tests at the Texas facility were limited to a maximum altitude of 2,500 ft (760 m) by an FAA regulatory permit.[29] which was later increased to 10,000 ft (3,000 m) for the F9R Dev testing.[14]

  • Hug Doug
  • windbourne

    Totally agree.

    My SWAG is that a valve came open after the smashing around (ever been in 8-12′ waves? Makes for a LOT of fun), and let in some water.

    Regardless, we have to wait and see.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Maybe what they need is a system to touchdown on land and avoids the waves altogether.

  • windbourne

    Except now, if SpaceX lands a trunk, then it would mean that the dragon itself can launch.

  • windbourne

    Of course, if the value can open due to waves, then it can open under normal landing. IOW, they need to find the source and make sure that it will not blow out during normal flights.

  • Robert Gishubl

    Not necessarily, there are such things as one way valves that allow flow only in one direction. With largish waves the external pressure may have caused a problem. However I do agree that they need to find the source and solve the problem.