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SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Dragon Design, recognized by NASA administrator as unique and creative

National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) officials hosted a press conference today at which agency officials provided press representatives with information about their progress on the Artemis program. NASA’s Artemis missions aim to cement America’s leadership in space exploration by providing the country with a solid foundation for conducting experiments at the Lunar South Pole. The briefing was conducted by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who is preparing to raise much-needed funding for the Artemis program from the US Congress.

He was joined by Kathy Lueders, Associate Administrator, NASA Directorate for Human Exploration and Operations Mission, James Reuter, Associate Administrator, NASA Directorate for Space Technology Mission, and Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator, NASA Directorate for Science Mission.

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At the event, Administrator Bridenstine shared how working with the commercial space exploration sector has helped his agency develop creative technologies, noting in particular that Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) developed solutions that his agency might not have developed.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 design and Dragon Launch Abort system demonstrate the strength of the commercial business model, the NASA administrator believes

The NASA official’s comments covered several key design areas for the SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher and the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Crew Dragon was the first spacecraft to bring astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this year as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to expand the involvement of the commercial sector in the agency’s missions. The CCP program solicits design proposals from companies that meet NASA requirements and is very different from the agency’s earlier approach, where the design was completed before the private sector was involved.

Mr Bridenstine highlighted these facts in a response to a question from NASA Watch’s Keith Cowing asking about NASA’s definition of sustainability and the NASA timeframe for the Lunar Gateway, which is the agency’s proposed lunar space station. In response, the administrator stated:

“Yes, so again you know that this is an important difference between the way we do this now and the way we did it in the past. In the past, NASA basically did wrote the requirements and designed the skills and then we turned to contractors to build what we basically designed the requirements to, now we turn to the industry and enable them to come up with very innovative creative solutions that are unique, and because we have done so, we now have three very different lunar landing systems under contract that differ greatly in their approach [laughs] and some of them will consider using Gateway, others maybe not so much.

We’re trying to learn the business model that is going to work, and we’ve done that with commercial supply and now commercial crew, and we’re thinking about the success we’ve had with the crewed dragon on a Falcon 9 rocket for example. You’ve heard me say some of these things before, but it’s important to note that you know that the idea that we would have a composite cladding pressure vessel in a liquid oxygen tank is not something NASA would have done on its own. The idea that we had supercooled liquid oxygen to get a more specific impulse out of a rocket would not have been done by NASA alone. The idea that we’d have nine rocket engines on a rocket the size of a Falcon 9 probably wouldn’t have been done by NASA alone. The idea that you integrated the launch abort system into the normal propulsion system might not have been done by NASA alone. “

The composite enclosed pressure vessels (COPVs) mentioned by Mr. Bridenstine are a key feature of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. They work with the company’s design decision to use super-cooled liquid oxygen for its missiles to increase their range and be reusable by allowing the first stage tanks to store more fuel.

These ships have also caused a headache for SpaceX in the past when a Falcon 9 malfunctioned while loading fuel and exploded in 2016. Four months after the investigation, SpaceX confirmed that the gaps between the composite packaging of the COPVs and the aluminum liner resulted in liquid oxygen flowing into them, where it got dangerously close to the helium inside them. The result was a devastating fireball that took months to examine and destroy the cargo sitting on the launcher.

The Crew Dragon’s abort launch system is designed to ensure that astronauts in the spacecraft can safely distance themselves while it is on a Falcon 9 launcher during pre-launch testing and preparation. This system uses the same propellant that the kite’s Super Draco thrusters use to maneuver in orbit, producing approximately 16,000 lbf of thrust for that purpose.

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