DragonFly

Future versions of SpaceX's Dragon capsule will use the company's SuperDraco thrusters to touch down on land, instead of splashing down in the ocean.

SpaceX's Grasshopper and F9R Dev test vehicles may soon get a new flying buddy.

The Federal Aviation Administration is taking comments on its draft environmental assessment for McGregor testing of the DragonFly — a version of the Dragon space capsule capable of firing rockets for a soft touchdown on land, rather than the ocean splashdown current Dragon cargo ships use to get home (as one did just last Sunday).

The FAA report suggests an added capability that the current Dragon cargo ship doesn't have, besides the ability to touch down on land. The Dragon is currently the only cargo ship that can not only haul things up to the International Space Station but bring things back as well; alternatives such as Orbital Sciences' Cygnus, the Russian Progress, the European ATV and the Japanese HTV are packed with trash before they depart the station and burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

But not everything that goes up can come down — specifically, the things that go up in Dragon's "trunk," an unpressurized cylinder that attaches to the gumdrop-shaped pressurized section but must currently be jettisoned before Dragon re-enters the atmosphere and splashes down. (Among the items in the trunk this last flight was a camera now attached to the ISS that provides live views of Earth.)

According to the FAA report, however, a trunk will be attached to the DragonFly for some of its tests — suggesting that a land landing will allow future flights to bring items back in the trunk as well as the Dragon proper (the trunk would have to be equipped with its own heat shield to survive re-entry, if that were the case).

DragonFly testing would begin only after the current F9R Dev testing at McGregor is completed, according to the FAA draft report. The base for the tests would either be the current F9R pad or a nearby area used for ground tests of the SuperDraco engines set for use on the DragonFly as well as the upcoming crewed version of the Dragon, called the DragonRider; if that's the case, a new launch pad would have to be built.

Those tests would start with a parachute drop from a helicopter up to 10,000 feet above the ground (about three times higher than that last F9R flight), the report said; in addition to the three chutes, the DragonFly's eight SuperDracos would fire for five seconds before the landing. Subsequent tests would do the same thing but without the parachutes.

Then the DragonFly would begin the same sort of tests conducted with Grasshopper and F9R Dev, taking off from the pad, hovering and landing, first with parachutes then without. On those tests the engines would burn for 25 seconds, according to the FAA report.

There would be a maximum of 30 tests a year in all, with the majority being the full propulsive hops without parachutes.

On the question likely of biggest interest to McGregor-area residents: the noise level (81 dBA 3 miles from the site) is expected to be less than that of the present Merlin 1D single-engine tests (97 dBA) and full nine-engine first stage tests (107 dBA).

The report also says there would be ten additional jobs for the test program — but that's compared to staffing levels that don't include F9R tests, so I don't know how much of a change that would be.

SpaceX has not yet responded to a request for comments.

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