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NASA makes major change to SpaceX contract so astronauts can reuse Crew Dragon

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This could be a big step for SpaceX, given that reusability is one of the key steps behind the firm’s mission to bring down the eye-watering costs of space travel.

The news follows a modification to NASA’s $2.7 billion commercial crew contract that it made with SpaceX back in 2014.

The modification to NASA’s contract with SpaceX reads: “The purpose of this bilateral modification is to extend the Demo-2 flight test from two weeks to up to 119 days and add the requirement for 45th operations group detachment 3 (DET-3) joint test training for PCM-1 through PCM-6 in exchange for allowing reuse of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Crew Dragon spacecraft beginning with PCM-2”.

What this means is that NASA astronauts will be allowed to fly on reused Crew Dragon capsules and Falcon 9 boosters from SpaceX’s third crew launch, according to Spaceflight Now.

This third crew launch is supposed to take place next year.

In addition, the modification to the contract also extends the Demo-2 test flight which put NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken aboard the International Space Station (ISS) last month in a historic flight from US soil.

doug hurley and bob behnken ahead of launch

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken ahead of last month’s launch to the ISS. (Image: Joe Raedle / Getty)

The test flight had initially only been contracted for two weeks, but now will see the two astronauts stay on the ISS potentially until August, though it could end sooner.

NASA officials say that the Demo-2 test flight is due to end with the Crew Dragon capsule – which is still docked to the ISS – splashing down in the Atlantic ocean with the help of parachutes, Spaceflight Now adds.

Although Mr Hurley and Mr Behnken are doing real work on the ISS at the moment, their mission is – officially, anyway – still just a test.

Once the two return back to Earth in a couple of months, NASA will review the mission before officially giving SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule the agency’s seal of approval.

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A mock-up of the Crew Dragon capsule being photographed

NASA has agreed that its astronauts may fly on reused Crew Dragon capsules, possibly next year. (Image: David McNew / Getty)

This will allow normal crewed missions to take place, rotating astronauts to and from the space stations at the start and end of their several-month-long shifts.

The missions will then be referred to as Crew-1, Crew-2, and so on. It’s after this second official crewed mission – Crew-2 – that astronauts will reuse a SpaceX capsule and/or booster for the first time.

So the first post-certification crewed launch – Crew-1 – will have to involve a brand-new Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket.

Josh Finch, a NASA spokesperson, told Spaceflight Now: “SpaceX has proposed to reuse future Falcon 9 and/or Crew Dragon systems or components for NASA missions to the International Space Station because they believe it will be beneficial from a safety and/or cost standpoint”.

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Falcon 9 rocket blasting off

SpaceX frequently reuses its Falcon 9 rockets, and the Crew Dragon capsules are also reusable. (Image: Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto / Getty)

The Crew-1 launch was initially proposed to take place on August 30, but it ultimately depends on when the Demo-2 test flight returns.

It’s understood that SpaceX has been contracted by NASA to perform six crewed launches throughout the decade.

According to Spaceflight Now, NASA has required SpaceX to take part in additional training with US military search and rescue teams in the event that there is an emergency abort during a launch.

Crew Dragon attached to a Falcon 9

A Crew Dragon capsule attached to the Falcon 9 that took Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS. (Image: Joe Raedle / Getty)

An emergency launch abort would happen if, for example, there was a problem with a Falcon 9 rocket mid-launch.

Human-rated Crew Dragon capsules are equipped with thrusters known as SuperDraco engines which would accelerate the capsule away from a rocket if there was such a launch failure.

SpaceX claims these SuperDraco engines are so powerful that they can have the Dragon capsule half a mile away from a faulty mid-flight rocket in under eight seconds.



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