Minutes ago, as SpaceX’s Dragon took off atop the Falcon 9 toward the ISS, an era ended. Concurrently, another was ushered in as smoke (don’t worry, it was the good kind) engulfed Launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This is the same Pad that will be the center point for the Falcon Heavy, crewed flights, and potentially even the future Interplanetary Transport System.
Today’s launch – which brought more than 6,400 pounds of supplies, equipment, and science experiments to the Expedition 52 crew – was the first for SpaceX in more than a month. While it may just sound like another resupply mission for Elon Musk’s spaceflight company, it truly marked a shift in focus.
The craft used today will be the last new first-generation Dragon spacecraft to fly. In a NASA advisory meeting, Sam Scimemi, NASA Director for the ISS, discussed the upcoming SpaceX missions for 2017. He noted that all future CRS-1 launches from SpaceX will be conducted with reused capsules. After today, there are eight more contracted cargo missions through the first CRS program, which means eight more opportunities to reuse the Dragon 2.
Since SpaceX will no longer be making the Dragon 1 spacecraft, resources can be reallocated toward the Dragon 2. This craft is designed to transport up to seven humans to the ISS or, someday, the Red Planet as a part of the Red Dragon Mission.
However, this Martian destination may not be set in stone. Musk recently tweeted, saying:
There was a time that I thought the Dragon approach to landing Mars, where you’ve got a base heat shield and side-mounted thrusters, would be the right way to land on Mars. Now I’m pretty confident that is not the right way and there’s a far better approach.
Musk’s tweet hints that the Red Dragon mission could be pushed back, or even cancelled from the original 2018 date. Even if the Dragon 2 won’t be taking the most precious cargo (i.e. humans) to the Red Planet, SpaceX is expected to have a cargo-only version of the craft for future resupply missions.
Suffice it to say, SpaceX fans have quite a bit to look forward to throughout the rest of the year, with the excitement (arguably) culminating in the maiden Falcon Heavy launch. The Dragon 1 that launched today will attempt to land on the LZ-1 pad, which is already being prepped for the dual booster landing of the Falcon Heavy this November. While the side boosters land on LZ-1, the core booster will attempt to touch down on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You.”
If all goes well, the most powerful operational rocket in the world will restore the possibility of flying missions with crew to the Moon or Mars in the very near future.