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The spacecraft that utterly transformed SpaceX has flown its last mission

  • Cargo Dragon is shown on Tuesday, about to be released by the International Space Station's robotic arm. NASA
  • This Dragon began its third flight on March 7, launching from Cape Canaveral. SpaceX
  • It flew on a Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX
  • Launch occurred shortly before midnight, local time. SpaceX
  • Dragon is shown here, approaching the station. NASA
  • Getting closer. NASA
  • The station's robotic arm grabbed Dragon on March 9. NASA
  • We can't confirm it, but an astronaut may have said, "There be Dragons here" after docking. NASA
  • Just hanging out. NASA
  • From top to bottom, Andrew Morgan, Oleg Skripochka, and Jessica Meir are pictured inside the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship shortly after opening the hatch to the US space freighter. NASA

The date August 18, 2006, forever altered the trajectory of SpaceX.

On that day, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to develop a service for delivering cargo to the International Space Station. This "Commercial Orbital Transportation Services" agreement would pay SpaceX $278 million to design and develop a spacecraft and rocket for this purpose—what became known as Cargo Dragon and the Falcon 9.

At the time, SpaceX was just 4 years old. The company had attempted a single launch, of its Falcon 1 rocket, from an atoll in the Pacific Ocean a few months earlier. This small rocket, capable of putting a few hundred kilograms into orbit, had flown for about half a minute before falling back to Earth and crashing into a reef just offshore. The rocket failed because, even before it cleared the launch pad, a fuel leak caused the engine to catch fire.

This was hardly a sterling record for a spaceflight company. So at the time, NASA was making a big bet on an SpaceX. Last summer I asked Gwynne Shotwell, then Vice President of Business Development for SpaceX, what this original NASA contract meant to the company in 2006.

"Oh, that was really important money," she said. "We were a little company. We were jackasses at that time. We'd just had a failure on the pad. We blew up a rocket in March of that year. Yeah, it was super critical. From my perspective, NASA was acknowledging that, even though we had a failure on Falcon 1, they felt like we had the right attitude and the right technology to extend this to a much larger rocket, the Falcon 9, and a capsule."

Getting Dragon to breathe fire

Over the next half-decade, SpaceX would design, develop, and test its Cargo Dragon spacecraft. As usual, the company looked to cut costs and upend the traditional aerospace model. For example, to store supplies for the ride into space, Dragon would need to have a mix of powered lockers (both to keep science experiments cold in refrigerators, as well as provide astronauts with a treat such as real ice cream) as well open bays that larger bags could be strapped into.

For the lockers, SpaceX sought out the vendor used by the space station program. The existing locker design required two latches to open and close each compartment, and the vendor wanted $1,500 per latch. This seemed way too expensive. Around that time, during a restroom break, a SpaceX engineer found inspiration as he contemplated the latch on a stall. Perhaps, he wondered, the company's in-house machinists might be able to make a simiRead More – Source