By the time I met Stuart Keech for an exclusive interview in a conference room at SpaceX Headquarters in Hawthorne, California, he had already launched astronauts to the International Space Station aboard a Dragon crew capsule and seen them through flight. Concurrently, a second Falcon 9 rocket carrying a flotilla of Starlink satellites launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Dragon docked with the space station, and impossibly, it seemed, there was still another launch to go. Two Intelsat communications satellites were set to fly from Cape Canaveral, and in perfect SpaceX fashion, would coincide within ten seconds of Dragon opening its hatch and feeding astronauts to the station. It had been a long day, and had a long way to go.
Keech is the senior director of Dragon Engineering, and as such, is the man in charge of keeping America in the human spaceflight business. (Previously, he was director of Dragon Propulsion.) Dragon is the only way astronauts can get to the space station from U.S. soil, and with the proliferation of issues plaguing Russia’s Soyuz capsules, might soon be the only way for anyone at all to travel there.
In a matter of days, the company will fly the Starship Super Heavy rocket for the first time. The sleek silver ship and its booster, the latter taller than the Statue of Liberty, are both entirely reusable, with Starship designed for orbital refueling. It is the sort of rocket you imagine NASA would have been building all this time, but hasn’t—a rocket designed for the future, making its orbital launch a turning point in human spaceflight: at last, a spacecraft capable of flying astronauts not only to the moon and the Lunar surface, but also to Mars. It will be able to carry Starlink satellite nodes in much greater numbers, as well as Starshield, the Defense Department counterpart to Starlink. In addition, Starship is theoretically capable of point-to-point flights to different places on Earth, which again, is of great interest to the Defense Department for moving large amounts of cargo very quickly. NASA’s robotic space science program is also considering the potential of Starship for launching heavier robotic spacecraft on new, and sometimes direct, trajectories.
No part of NASA, the American military, or human exploration can achieve their loftiest ambitions without Starship’s success. It is, in short, the sort of quantum leap that was the Apollo program itself.
DM-2 flight by John Kraus
In terms of sheer splash, this might make Dragon and Falcon 9 seem obsolete or destined for scrapyards and museums. But when you walk onto the shop floor at SpaceX Headquarters, you realize immediately that not only is Dragon still the backbone of human spaceflight, but that it’s just getting started. After crossing through the cube farms of engineers and others—Elon Musk’s desk is nondescript, one among many—you enter a literal spaceship factory, and hanging above, outside mission control, is the very first Dragon cargo capsule ever flown. It is scorched all around, having survived launch, docking, reentry, and splashdown. And there, on its side, is a tiny testament to the SpaceX style of forward-thinking. They put a window in the cargo craft. One day, they were going to fly people. They succeeded in 2019.
“The whole world sees Starship as SpaceX’s next thing, and I'm responsible for the Dragon program that right now is the American spaceflight program,” says Keech, a youthful, affable engineer who made time to chat despite an unbelievably busy schedule. “It could be soon eclipsed by something like Starship that’s also going to be flying humans to space, but I think that the mission statement for Dragon is to continue to expand the envelope of of human flight in low Earth orbit.”
Even after Starship gets its space legs in the next few years, SpaceX will be mounting increasingly ambitious and unexpected missions for Dragon—missions that NASA has no other way to achieve.
Keech had awakened at two in the morning before the Crew 5 launch for a meeting with NASA to talk about the weather. When launching astronauts, it wasn’t enough to have a clear, beautiful day over Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the Dragon would fly. Worst-case scenarios also demanded attention.
“We were specifically tracking some weather at the stage separation location for Dragon,” he said. “If Dragon aborted off the top of Falcon, we want to make sure it was safe for the crew when the capsule splashed down.” This meant somewhere off the coast of South Carolina. “It’s got to be safe for the astronauts, and for the team that would recover them.”
Around three a.m., everyone agreed that it was safe to fly. Afterward, the crew suited up, and members of the SpaceX flight team in Florida began what Keech called “fluffing the pillows” on Dragon, doing everything from draping seatbelts across the seats to turning the lights on. Meanwhile, at Mission Control in Hawthorne, the Dragon team monitored the spacecraft for any anomalies. But after they sealed the crew in the craft, someone studying high-resolution camera footage noticed a single human hair in the hatch. Though the craft was almost certainly safe for flight, there was plenty of time, so SpaceX decided to halt preflight testing, open the door, remove the hair, and reseal it.
“It’s just one of those things where on the ground, you can take action, right? Once you launch, we would be talking about it for six months, so you might as well just take the time and do it,” he laughed.
Quick View: Dragon
8.1m / 26.7ft
4m / 13ft
9.3m³ / 328ft³
37m³ / 1300ft³
Launch Payload Mass
6,000kg / 13,228lbs
Return Payload Mass
3,000kg / 6,614lbs
SpaceX “owns” Dragon, both literally and in terms of operation. Twenty-four-seven, teams from Mission Control in Hawthorne handle its preflight, flight, docking, and the weeks or months it might be docked with the International Space Station.
Because he worked on Falcon before he came to Dragon, Keech says he might be more relaxed than most during launch. “I love watching Falcon fly. It's exciting to see the culmination of both vehicles, which must work in tandem to get crew up to ISS and back safely.”
The Dragon team has adopted the same maintenance process that Falcon pioneered. After the capsule splashes down, it’s loaded onto a recovery vessel and brought to Cape Canaveral, where the SpaceX team there unloads it, removes thermal protection, and inspects everything. They examine everything on the interior (though little of the inside is refurbished from flight to flight). Each of the systems is put through a functional checkout, valves are tested thoroughly, propulsion systems are studied, as well as electrical and fluid system behaviors and air conditioning.
Engineers eventually reinstall the heat shield and thermal protection, and back to the launch site the capsule goes. It is a continuous process. While they were launching and docking the capsule for Crew 5, teams were actively working through the maintenance and refurbishment of the capsule for the Crew 6 mission. Meanwhile, they were doing pre-launch testing for the next cargo launch.
Starbase by Jenny Hautmann
“We're managing now a fleet of Dragons,” says Keech. “We have seven vehicles and all of them are doing something at any given time.” Their total planned fleet, he said, will have three cargo vehicles and five crew vehicles.
And their ambitions go beyond loading the space station with people and sundries.
Late last year, SpaceX and NASA announced a study to see if they could boost the orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope, which would dramatically extend the life of that vital national astronomy asset. Previously, astronauts aboard the space shuttle could service the telescope, but obviously, those days are done. SpaceX, in conjunction with the Polaris program, would find a way to do the job.
“We've looked at the performance of Dragon and whether we have enough propellant and delta-v capability to rendezvous with and boost Hubble based on how heavy Hubble is and how heavy Dragon is,” says Keech. “But what we're kicking off now is the next level of that. We need to figure out what the rendezvous would look like.”
Starbase by Erik Kuna
The vehicle that they are planning to fly would have a crew on it, Keech explains. “The docking itself would happen using software on Dragon, potentially with the ability for the crew to take over if there's a problem.” It would be similar in that regard to the crew’s ability to dock manually with the International Space Station if the automatic guidance systems failed.
Hubble is already prepped for the activity. The last service mission there, in 2009, left a docking mechanism on the spacecraft. By an amazing coincidence, one of the astronauts on that shuttle mission, and the last person to have hands-on Hubble, was astronaut Megan McArthur, who flew on the SpaceX Crew 2 mission, and who is married to astronaut Bob Behnken, who flew on the first crewed flight of the Dragon program, docking with the International Space Station in 2020. “It’s pretty incredible,” said Keech.
Support for the service mission came from the top. “Early on,” said Keech, “we didn’t know if we wanted to do Hubble, and then we talked to Elon. And he’s like, ‘This sounds awesome.’ And we were like, great!”
Keech says of Musk, “He knows exactly when to challenge the team to make sure we’re always thinking about the next thing, and trying to improve Dragon to do the next thing. And he’ll say, ‘And then what's the thing after that?’” Musk was also eager early on for the Polaris Dawn mission, which will be the first private spacewalk in history.
For all his eagerness to push spaceflight forward, however, Musk knows when to pull back. Last summer, there was a propellant leak on a Dragon cargo vehicle. SpaceX ultimately had to partially offload the vehicle to fix the leak and then put it back on. There were conversations about whether they needed to do any of that, however. NASA could have flown the mission safely with one valve closed. It would have reduced the spacecraft’s fault tolerance, but not place the vehicle or its contents in jeopardy. If something went wrong, the Dragon team could have simply brought the vehicle home early.
Musk disagreed. “We should fix the leak,” he said.
“We need him to buy into what we're doing because it's like, delay this mission or fly at higher risk posture,” says Keech. “I wanted to go fix the leak and I was happy that he wanted to as well. But bringing that trade forward, like I understood we can go either way, and he was resolute that we go fix it.”
Though Starship represents a new chapter for SpaceX, NASA, and human spaceflight overall, in many respects it is an evolution of the flight systems to come before.
Quick View: Starship Prototype
50m / 164ft
9m / 29.5ft
1,200t / 2.6Mlb
1,500tf / 3.3Mlbf
“The cool thing about Starship is it's kind of a blend between Falcon and Dragon,” says Keech. “We can take the lessons learned and the best parts of both—and eliminate the worst parts—and make an ultimately better and more capable vehicle.” Starship is a two-stage vehicle, just like the Falcon 9, but its upper stage is also capable of carrying humans. “It's like if you turn the Falcon second stage into Dragon—that's what Starship is.”
Starbase by Pauline Acalin
The human-rated version of Starship will have to have thermal control systems and life support system, just like Dragon, and the Starship team takes advantage of that. “There are certain teams within Dragon that are very unique at SpaceX, whose knowledge is acutely applicable to what we’re going to be doing on Starship as we take people to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.” Last year, for example, the Dragon team began upgrading the Dragon dehumidifiers to make them “more manufacturable,” says Keech. “That's because we know we have to have a dehumidifier on Starship in order to fly people in the Artemis human landing system program, as well as our own missions to the Moon and Mars.”
The Dragon program, he says, is continuing to push the envelope, all in pursuit of the goals that Starship and SpaceX cumulatively have. “We know we need a spacesuit that can walk on Mars someday. So doing a spacewalk on Dragon is on the path toward that. All this is in parallel with our highest priority: servicing the International Space Station with astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as cargo. And it's pretty wild. This is very much the active expansion of spaceflight, and of making space accessible. That's what we're doing right now. And we're gonna continue to do it.”