back to article Elon Musk's private Dragon ship to dock with ISS in Feb

NASA has announced that - all being well - the first mission to the International Space Station by a privately built and operated spacecraft will lift off on February 7. The craft will be a Dragon capsule launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket, both made and handled by techbiz visionary Elon Musk's new company SpaceX. The cheese sent …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ....unlike European ATVs

    Lewis, I'll resist the "broken record"analogy, but is it required to knock every piece of European technology. ATV can't do re-entry because it is not required to. The design was agreed with the ISS countries and what they wanted is what the ATV provides. By not supporting re-entry, heavy heat shields etc, it can carry large payloads, including enough fuel to provide the ISS with it's largest orbit re-boosts. It addition there is the small matter of all the ISS waste which needs to be disposed of, the ATV does that too in the most efficient way so far.. unless of course Falcon 9 packs a wheelie bin as part of it's payload.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      A rare moment...

      To be fair to Lewis, he is probably only anticipating the next step with the ATV where EADS state their intention to make it capable enough for re-entry and human spaceflight, but on condition of being given tens/hundreds of millions of dollars for a "design study" and billions more (and several years) before they are actually required to deliver anything.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Holy Shit...

      I didn't know that...

      What about all the CO2 produced :-)

    3. BristolBachelor Gold badge
      Thumb Up

      Agreed; the ATV is not really a similar beast to the Dragon. The ATV includes quite a sophisticated control (including autonomous docking) system and engines sufficient to re-boost (or even de-orbit) the ISS.

      I personally think that the ATV is good at what it does. It is a shame that the docking ports it uses are not large enough for standard payload racks, but that is mroe to do with the age of the docking system. The docking systems for newer space stations should support moving a payload rack through them.

      I also think that the Dragon looks good on paper, and does complement the ATV rather than compete with it (after all, your car can also tow things and deliver boxes, but does not compete well with a tow-truck or articulated lorry!)

      There have also been plans considering upgrading/adapting the ATV to support transport of passengers, or the inclusion of a re-entry vehicle for experiment return, but they were not requirements and so were not built-in to start with (<troll> after all, the USA has the cheap quick-to-reuse shuttle system for that :) </troll>)

    4. rh587

      Not european - Government

      @AC 11:00

      On this occasion, I'd side with Lewis. This isn't about American/European - Lewis is roundly slapping ULA as well as the ESA. If the Americans had a capsule he'd probably be criticising that as well.

      ATV cost close to $1.8bn to develop and it's neither human-rated not does it even have to survive re-entry.

      Per-capsule cost is $400m a pop.

      For <$1bn, SpaceX have a man-rated re-entry capable capsule AND a man-rated rocket.

      It is not ATV's fault that it cannot re-enter or fly manned - it's not designed to and that is not a problem. It does what it needs to do well. But re-entry and life support are two of the more complex and difficult things to get right. The fact that ATV cost $1.8bn when it doesn't have life support nor does it have to handle the complexities of re-entry is a travesty that the established space industry needs to get a grip on if they expect to compete with SpaceX.

      ATV is a pressure vessel with guidance systems, docking ring and maneuvering thrusters.

      Dragon is that plus life support and heat shield, but for half the price...

      Where did the spare billion go?

      1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

        Probably a lot of that extra money went on bureaucracy, meetings endless paperwork and mind-changing (leading to spec changing).

        However, according to the ESA, "The total development costs for the ATV amount to approximately 1.35 billion euro. This includes the prototype (ATV 1 Jules Verne at around 1 billion euros)".

        I don't think that the development costs of Dragon nor the launcher have been released. Nasa paid less that $1bn, certainly, but they certainly weren't the only contributors, and don't own the rocket or Dragon (they are just buying them like you buy a TV, and what you pay for a TV doesn't cover the design costs either). NASA is paying at least another 1.6bn to launch 12 missions, and with the re-usability that SpaceX is looking at, their costs here will be lower, and some of the profit will probably pay off some more of the initial investment.

        As for the ATV, it already has life support and is supposed to be fully human rated (although not launched with humans on board). The ATV guidance system is also a fully autonomous docking system, whereas the Dragon is told to fly in a particular way and is plucked out of space using the ISS arm. The ATV pressure vessel is also a bit bigger than Dragon's, holding 7 1/2 tons of pressurised cargo vs. 3. (also 4T of ATV fuel can be used for reboosting the ISS), and the ISS stays docked for 6 months giving a sizable increase of habitable space, compared to the 2 weeks (and smaller space) for Dragon.

        The proposed ARV variant that ESA has been umming and arring over for far too long would also solve the re-entry problem (but losing about 1/2 the pressurised volume/cargo capability in the process). However Europe needs to do a lot of work to get the knowledge / experience to do that, not having done that already.

        All that said, for it's job I like the Dragon a lot. I like the way it doesn't need a huge fairing over it at launch; I like the way it is designed for hatches, windows, seats and integrated launch abort system from the outset. If it can be caught and manually docked, that simplifies the AOCS a lot, and seems to be acceptable (although how it will dock with a bigalow is another matter).

      2. Ramazan


        Sir, you need to get educated. 1st, if vehicle wasn't designed as human-rated in these times, it means that is provides much faster and cheaper launches for cargo (and most probably its tonnage is much higher than that of comparable human-rated vehicle). 2nd, you need to put Nazi in charge, if you want something to be done right (

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not everybody is using cryogenic propellants

    Actually the only rockets using cryogenic first stages AFAIK are the Delta IV and Ariane 5 (Shuttle main engines used cryogenic propellants as well). Cryogenic propellants are difficult to manage and require more complex ground support, but they are non-toxic (unlike the hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide used by the Proton, for example) and allow for larger payloads.

    There is a reason if Russia was never able to send probes beyond Mars.

  3. FutureShock999
    Thumb Up


    What a name. Originally this just looked like a hobby for a rich guy like you, but you have made me a believer. Oh, you will put a few more feet wrong...but you really have the big boys running scared, that's for sure. Hats off to you and your entire team...the days of the everyman-astronaut are fast approaching. Reminds me of "Red Star - Winter Orbit"...'what we do is we take these surplus boosters, and haul them up a cable to the balloon..and then drop them and ignite them. Got us here....' type-ethos. Fantastic...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "just 1500 employees"

    But this "just 1500 employees" doesn't include the employees that make all the sub-assemblies that SpaceX buys. It's funny that the number of employees quoted for the competition is listed as the total number that work on the competition's rockets (including subcontractors), but for SpaceX only includes the local ones who paint it white and stick on the "SpaceX" logo...

    1. AlexH

      I'm not naive enough to think that SpaceX haven't engaged /any/ subcontractors, but I was under the impression that their operation involved a significant manufacturing component which eliminated much of the outsourcing their competitors rely on.

      Can the Reg comment to clarify this? I'm as much a SpaceX fanboy as the next armchair *naut, but would be interested in an answer to this.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Maybe they should change their reporting, then: emphasizing how many jobs you've created is essential for getting government money. If it's like what you say, they're making things difficult for themselves.

    3. James Hughes 1

      SpaceX make a point of doing as much manufacturing in house as possible - that's how they keep their prices low. So they make their own engines, tanks, electronics. Doesn't leave much.

      So, there maybe some contracting out, but no-where near the amount used by the ULA.

    4. Jared Hunt

      AFAIK Spacex manufacture most of their own hardware. Engines, rocket bodies, tanks, spacecraft bodies and loads of other custom parts are assembed in SPACEXs own factories. There's plently of photos of them doing it on their website.

      There are probably a million off the shelf components that they buy in, but the ULA does that too and I'm pretty sure they don't list the entire staff of a parts manufacuturer any more than SPACEX do.

    5. Gene Cash Silver badge

      SpaceX doesn't buy very many sub-assemblies

      They make their own rocket engines, turbopumps, pressure hulls, fuel tanks, steering jets, heat shields, and other stuff.

      About the only complex off-the-shelf stuff they buy are parachutes and electronics like computers & gyros.

  5. JeffyPooh

    God speed Elon Musk

    I hope that someday big rocket launches are so common that their air pollution actually becomes a problem.

  6. James Micallef Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    +10 points...

    ...for free-market capitalism. In it's true form (ie unburdened by corruption, influence-peddling and protectionism) it's still the best way to get the most results with the least expenditure.

  7. Gordon 10

    Fuck it

    Just tell Musk he can have 10bn if he can get astronauts on mars by 2020.

    I'd contribute my quid.

    1. John Hughes

      And the population of the Earth is?

      So, you've given him 1 of the 10billion he needs.

      Where does the rest come from?

      1. Gordon 10


        From NASA who are going to piss double that up the wall trying to achieve the same thing.

        Amounts are totally made up but you get the point.

    2. Local Group
      Thumb Up

      Good Idea

      It would be like the Longitude Prize of the early 18th century.

  8. Beachrider

    SpaceX is progressing well...

    I agree that SpaceX is doing well. Recall, though, that the Shuttle was specifically chartered to get AWAY from Hydrazine and TOWARDS water-output engines. The Water engines had their own problems (mostly with Cryogenic take-offs).

    The other comment about Russia's Mars-targeted missions meets with one of my concerns, too. These LEO technologies are appropriately decreasing the cost of getting to low orbits.

    There is quite a bit more technology required to reliably get to Mars.

    1. Robert Sneddon


      Every Shuttle launch required an EPA waiver due to the toxicity of the smoke from its solid rocket boosters.

    2. Richard Gadsden

      Get away from Hydrazine

      Not for space-fired long-distance missions. UDMH/IRFNA really is the only sane option for a space-fired rocket. Hypergolic ignition means there are many fewer things to go wrong, and the fuels don't freeze until you get to insanely low temperatures.

      SpaceX uses RP-1/LOX, ie plain old hydrocarbon fuels. Pretty sensible decision for a ground-launched/LEO system; you don't have to worry about the kerosene freezing even in LEO. The lower Isp is rather well-compensated for by kerosene being much easier to handle and denser - the larger LH2 fuel tank usually ends up adding enough weight to make the other advantages pretty marginal.

      Now the Russian use of hydrazine as a ground-launch fuel, yeah, that's insane. But no Western rocket has used a hydrazine for ground-launch since the sixties.

  9. h4rm0ny
    Thumb Up


    Buried in the article is the bit I love best: future designs of the Dragon will touch back down using retro-rockets. Seriously? After all these decades, we actually get to see a space-vessel land back on Earth with proper 1950s Sci-fi movie retro-rockets!

    Woo hoo!

    1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      If I'm not mistaken, the Soyuz do this too; so it's at least 60's technology (if not earlier).

      However, I do very much like the Dragon approach, which is to build the launch escape into the actual craft (so you don't throw it away at launch) and use that for the landing. I also like the way that the shroud is only a very small part (=lower weight) with most of the Dragon not needing a shroud during launch.

  10. mmm mmm


    Seems like an expensive way to send a whole cheese into space when they could take some in their hand luggage,

  11. Greg J Preece

    I really really hope this works (and isn't *ahem* inspected by other factions prior to launch). Musk looks set to bloody a few noses if he can pull this off, but it's become clear in the past 10-20 years that the American space program is faltering at best, and dead in the water at worst. If a private company can kick-start one of our most important areas of scientific advancement, then good luck to them.

  12. Beachrider

    Retro rockets...

    Using retro rockets to finally-stop a capsule seems strange. Once we know how-slowly the capsule will be going when the retro-rockets must start, we can realistically gauge the weight of the rockets+fuel. Once we know that, we can gauge the weight of additional fuel (or lowering of actual payload) for liftoff.

    Getting fancy on landings is EXACTLY where the Shuttle embedded some unfortunate thinking, yea some 40 years ago.

    ...I would just like them to get some ISS docking experience in 2012, myself...

    1. The Axe

      Don't the Russians use retro-rockets on their soyuz capsules? Cause they land on land I'm sure they use the retros to provide a bit of a cushion effect.

      1. Ramazan


        of course Soviet Union used them since sixties till its collapse. Russia uses retrorockets to this day AFAIK

  13. Bilby


    I hope the ISS astronauts are big fans of cheese; if not, SpaceX really ought to consider sending some other foodstuffs as well in their supply runs.

    At the very least, they should send up some crackers on the next Progress or ATV delivery, to tide them over until the Dragon capsule can be qualified as 'biscuit rated'.

  14. Kharkov

    This is what success looks like

    Kudos to SpaceX! A lot of the comments here mention cost. The whole EELV program is mentioned in an essay over at

    It mentions that SpaceX's Falcon 9 is coming in at about 3 times cheaper than ULA's Atlas 401.

    When you can do the job at one third the price and (hopefully) meet or exceed the required safety standards, then Elon's going to put a lot of people out of business whilst at the same time making a lot more possible.

    And a good thing too.

  15. solaries

    Dragon 9 SpaceX Program

    Looking forward to the launch of Dragon 9 and the reboot of the US space program. I wish it was a scramjet but for now I will take what I can get.

  16. Beachrider

    Retro rocket redux...

    The Soyuz craft have been shown to have a momentary retro-fire just before hitting the earth. That kind of system only works if there is no vegetation or standing water in a very large level landing zone. American space capsules also needed a very large level landing zone, so they landed at sea with no retro rockets.

    If ANY kind of retro rockets (or any non-sea landing mechanism), it will involve adding the rockets and fuel (and deal with that weight). If they choose something fancier than Soyuz (to survive non-level or vegetation-obstructed landing zones) then this could be a larger design-issue.

    I hope that helps...

    1. Chris 69

      Easily find level area

      It doesn't need to be large.. on the later Apollo flights they had to stop parking the aircraft carrier at exactly the planned touchdown point for fear of being hit... Nowadays with gps and all that stuff they could surely land something within a few inches... e.g. right on top of a nice soft panda..

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