SpaceX is preparing to retire their current fleet of Dragon cargo spacecraft in favour of a variant of the Dragon 2, also known as the Crew Dragon.
The first Dragon spacecraft was launched in December 2010. Since then, the spacecraft has been launched on resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) a total of 17 times. However, construction of new Dragon spacecraft ceased in 2017, with subsequent missions being launched aboard flight-proven spacecraft.
As of CRS-18, SpaceX has successfully reused Dragon spacecraft on seven different missions. CRS-18 was also the first time the company had reused a Dragon three times.
SpaceX is currently contracted to launch a total of 26 missions to the ISS across two NASA Commercial Resupply Services contracts. As of next year, much of that workload will continue to be fulfilled by flight-proven Dragon spacecraft with the new variant of the Crew Dragon beginning to take over some of the responsibility.
The new variant of SpaceX’s next-generation flagship spacecraft will offer much of the same capability as the Crew Dragon including automated docking with the ISS. The current Dragon cargo spacecraft requires personnel aboard the station to capture it with the Canadarm2 robotic arm and install it manually. This takes time and diverts personnel away from valuable scientific work. The new spacecraft will also allow for a faster turnaround from recover to relaunch.
The major difference between the Crew Dragon and the new cargo variant is the removal of the spacecraft’s SuperDraco thrusters, which power its launch abort system. These thrusters were responsible for a mishap that caused the destruction of a Crew Dragon during a static fire test in April. Their removal may, as a result, see the new variant launch on a contracted mission ahead of its crewed counterpart.