For the booster stage of Falcon 9, test landings after a full flight profile are relatively frequent. SpaceX can try those on each CRS mission to the ISS, and in theory, any other launch that wouldn't require complete booster stage burnout to exhaustion, such as higher energy trajectories to GEO or beyond. And they were using Grasshopper and F9R Dev1 for development VTVL test flights.

For Dragon and Crew Dragon spacecraft powered landing however, while they can of course try short flight profile tests relatively easily, and they will have to complete at the minimum one more test landing of Crew Dragon during the in-flight abort for the CCDev contract with NASA, the latter will be a parachuted descent. And so far, same goes for CRS missions with Dragon splashing somewhere in the Pacific west of California.

So when will SpaceX be able to test full flight profile powered descent and landing of Dragon / Crew Dragon?


2 Answers 2


SpaceX decided to get certified and flying manned first with the simplest recovery system they had. That is parachute landing.

They will then use the DragonFly test vehicle in McGregor to test parachute to land, with SuperDraco to cushion the blow. Then test SuperDraco only landings. Then boosted hops and landings. (Boosted hops saves on rental cost for helicopter).

The Dragon Cargo vehicle uses the CBM style port (for berthing), not the LIDS/PMA adapter.

Dragon Crew will use only the LIDS/PMA adapter.

The diameters and mechanisms of those two adapter modalities are very different, and each seems to have been designed around the docking port sizing.

To test powered landing on a Dragon Crew would require a third configuration, a Dragon Crew, with SuperDracos et al, with a CBM port.

Maintaining/developing/testing a third configuration may not be worth it, when DragonFly is coming, and NASA is comfortable with ocean recovery for the initial flights.

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    $\begingroup$ There's a lot to be said for simplicity. While powered landings are going to be awesome, parachute landings are already a solved problem, so it's worth (in both quantities of money and time) getting certified now. $\endgroup$ Commented May 20, 2015 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ @ThaneBrimhall And SpaceX is clearly thinking of it as a business. Win the contract with what we know works. Make it better over time, so we can sell more of them and make it more useful. Unlike government programs which have a harder time, due to so many fingers in the pie. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 15:53

As far as I know, NASA has specified Dragon v1 for the CRS missions, so no chance of landing tests within that contract.
The pad abort test has shown that the Crew Dragon is far enough along for unmanned test flights. Well, sort of: it didn't include a full complement of attitude control thrusters, but those should be mostly identical to the Dragon v1 ones. So if they get the urge they could send one up pretty soon.
Initial Crew Dragon missions are planned to use parachutes as the main deceleration method, with a short burst of the SuperDraco thrusters to soften the landing, so there's some scope for testing there.


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