SpaceX has halted production of the new Crew Dragon astronaut capsule as Elon Musk’s space transportation company builds up resources for its next-generation spacecraft program, a company executive told Reuters.

Limiting the fleet to four Crew Dragons adds urgency to Starship, the eventual successor to the astronaut capsule, and SpaceX’s moon and Mars rockets. The first Starship launch has been by months due to engine development hurdles and regulatory scrutiny.

It also created new challenges, as the company how to maintain a fleet and resolve unexpected issues quickly without delaying the busy schedule of astronaut missions.

“We’re finishing our final (capsule), but we’re still making components because we’re going to be refurbished,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told Reuters, confirming plans to end Crew Dragon manufacturing.

She added that SpaceX will retain the ability to build more capsules if needed in the future, but believes “fleet management is key.”

Musk’s business model is based on reusable spacecraft, so it’s inevitable that the company will stop production at some point. But the timing is unknown, nor is his strategy for using the existing fleet to complete the entire backlog.

Crew Dragon has launched five government and private astronauts into space since 2020, when it carried the first pair of NASA astronauts and became NASA’s primary vehicle for transporting humans to and from the International Space Station.

After each flight, the capsule is refurbished at SpaceX’s facility in Florida, which the company calls “Dragon Land.”

“There’s a life cycle issue, and once you start using it the third, fourth, fifth time, you start to find different things,” said retired NASA astronaut and former SpaceX executive Garrett Wray Sman said he now advises the company on human spaceflight matters.

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“SpaceX is very good at identifying these issues quickly and then acting quickly to fix them,” Reisman added, pointing to a 2021 investigation that saw SpaceX discover and repair a twice-crewed crew within a few months. Toilet leak on Crew Dragon capsule.

NASA has given SpaceX about $3.5 billion (approximately Rs 26,642,350 crore) to help develop and subsequently conduct six flights to the space station using Crew Dragon. It added three missions to fill delays for Boeing’s Starliner capsule.

SpaceX has sent four astronauts to the space station under a NASA contract at a cost of about $255 million (approximately Rs 1,941.085 crore) per flight. The company last year embarked on a completely private mission with four passengers, including a billionaire entrepreneur who funded the flight, on a three-day trip in Earth orbit.

Houston-based space station builder and spaceflight manager Axiom Space plans to fly at least four more private astronaut missions aboard Crew Dragon, with the first so-called Ax-1 mission scheduled to carry four to the space station in April for scientific research.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has focused in recent years on the company’s hasty development of a reusable Starship, the centerpiece of Musk’s eventual goal of colonizing Mars.

Like the Crew Dragon, SpaceX’s workhorse reusable rocket, the Falcon 9 and its more powerful variant, the Falcon Heavy, is refurbished after each flight, and not every component is capable of making multiple trips to space.

“Our goal is to operate more and more like an airplane, where you can fly the airplane after it lands, fill it with gas and oxygen, and fly again very quickly,” Reisman said.

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“Starship, if it lives up to its design goals, it will be able to affordably replace everything the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon can do.”

© Thomson Reuters 2022

By Rebecca French

Rebecca French writes books about Technology and smartwatches. Her books have received starred reviews in Technology Shout, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist. She is a New York Times and a USA Today Bestseller...