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The Dragon spacecraft or capsule, also known as the pressurized section, allows for the transport of people as well as environmentally sensitive cargo. The Dragon spacecraft is capable of carrying up to 7 passengers to and from Earth orbit, and beyond. It is the only spacecraft currently flying that is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth, and is the first private spacecraft to take humans to the space station.

The SpaceX Dragon approaching the ISS during the C2+ mission in May 2012.
The SpaceX Dragon approaching the ISS during the C2+ mission in May 2012. Credits: NASA

During its maiden flight in December 2010, Dragon became the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to be recovered successfully from orbit. On 25 May 2012, a cargo variant of Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to successfully rendezvous with and attach to the ISS. SpaceX is contracted to deliver cargo to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program, and Dragon began regular cargo flights in October 2012. In 2020, SpaceX returned America’s ability to fly NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station on American vehicles for the first time since 2011. In addition to flying astronauts to space for NASA, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft can also carry commercial astronauts to Earth orbit, the ISS or beyond.

Variants

There are two variants: Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon. Crew Dragon was initially called “DragonRider” and it was intended from the beginning to support a crew of seven or a combination of crew and cargo. It is able to perform fully autonomous rendezvous and docking with manual override ability, using the NASA Docking System (NDS). For typical missions, Crew Dragon will remain docked to the ISS for a period of 180 days, but is designed to remain on the station for up to 210 days, matching the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Crew Dragon approaching the ISS in March 2019, during Demo-1
Crew Dragon approaching the ISS in March 2019, during Demo-1 Credits: NASA

Engines

The Dragon spacecraft is equipped with 16 Draco thrusters used to orient the spacecraft during the mission, including apogee/perigee maneuvers, orbit adjustment and attitude control. Each Draco thruster is capable of generating 90 pounds of force in the vacuum of space. An array of eight SuperDraco engines provide fault-tolerant propulsion for Dragon’s launch escape system. In the unlikely event of an emergency, the eight SuperDraco engines can power Dragon half a mile away from the launch vehicle in less than eight seconds.

Draco Engines. Credits: SpaceX
Draco Engines. Credits: SpaceX
SuperDraco Engines. Credits: SpaceX
SuperDraco Engines. Credits: SpaceX

Dragon Recovery

The Dragon spacecraft is equipped with two drogue parachutes to stabilize the spacecraft following reentry and four main parachutes to further decelerate the spacecraft prior to landing.

Dragon Parachut system
Dragon Parachute system Credits: SpaceX

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