SpaceX Crew Dragon Is Roomier, But Has Longer Hard G Forces Than Russian Soyuz

SpaceX Crew Dragon ISS Docked
SpaceX Crew Dragpn 'Resilience' as part of NASA's Crew 1 mission docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on November 16, 2020. Image: NASA

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SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Ms. Gwynne Shotwell conducted a brief question and answer session with astronauts Michael Hopkins and Shannon Walker of Expedition 64 on the International Space Station (ISS). Glover and Walker flew onboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon to the ISS last month as part of NASA's Crew-1 mission that officially resumed manned flights to the station from American soil.

As part of their session, the pair provided key details about their experience onboard the Dragon and how it differed from their flights on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft - which NASA had used (and still uses) before Dragon to send its crew to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) on the ISS. These differences, according to them, cover the Dragon's overall volume and the forces that astronauts experiences during their ascent.

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In addition to the differences between Dragon and Soyuz, the questions that Ms. Shotwell asked astronauts Hopkins and Walker covered SpaceX's spacesuits, their feelings prior to liftoff and what features they'd like on future spacecraft. Since the answers about the differences between Crew Dragon and Soyuz are the subject of this piece, we've started off with them. The rest of the questions are in order, with a few being omitted.

Shotwell: "Okay that's great to hear [In response to the answer regarding the spacesuits]. And there's good feedback in there too so I appreciate that. Okay, Colin Gibbons who is a lead site reliability engineer in software development is asking, what were each of the crew's, well each of yours, biggest impressions of the experience and sensations associated with the Falcon 9 ride to orbit. This question gets asked a lot actually. So how does it feel to ride in a Dragon on top of the beast named Falcon 9?" 

Hopkins: "Yeah wow. I don't know if there's words really to properly describe what that felt like. You talk about sitting on a Dragon on top of the beat and it definitely was. You knew you were going somewhere. Actually, it all started earlier than that when we were doing the fuelling operations and it's talking to you all the time. It's very interesting to hear all the noises that are going on from the fueling. But then once we lifted off the pad, man, it was exciting. It was an incredible incredible ride. The throttle down, when it throttled back up, boy, you felt it, you knew you were going somewhere. The staging was incredible, we were all just smiling and beaming and high-fiving [laughs] it was an amazing experience."

Walker: "And I would add to that. Everything that he said and just the G loads that you get. And compared to the Soyuz it's a completely different experience. In the Soyuz you'll peak in about four and a half Gs and the Gs drop off. And that's all you get to the three stages. The two stages on the Falcon, you're just increasing your G load the whole time. So by the time the first stage engine ends you're about 3.3 Gs, second stage it just keeps going up and up and up till you're about four and a half, but the time you spend between three and half and four and a half Gs is quite long. So you feel like [presses face] your face is being pushed back."

Shotwell: "Well you looked great by the way, we were inches away from our computer monitors watching you guys. And we all appreciated the high fives as well. Okay, a question from Yen Tah [?] who's a PCB designer in the avionics core engineering team. What is the major difference between, well this is now redundant, sorry. What is the major difference between riding the Soyuz and the Crew Dragon to the ISS? We heard a little bit about the G loading but are there other elements about the differences?"

Hopkins: "Yeah you know it's interesting. This is my second flight, so I would say one of the big differences I was probably more aware of everything on the second flight than...than the first flight. Things happened that at least for me happened faster on the first one. I was able to keep up with things and feel things and be aware of things probably a little bit better on this flight then I was on the other one. And of course, the other difference for me when we talk about all the way to station, you know my Soyuz flight was only six hours. And this one was a little bit longer. So we actually had to live in Dragon for quite a while and I have to say it was pretty comfortable, I was very happy with how it worked out in terms of you know when we needed privacy, we were able to get that and do everything that we needed to do during that 27 hours to get to station."

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Walker: "I would agree. It's a little bit more spacious than a Soyuz. My ride to the station on the Soyuz was two days, and so only a little over a day was much better. But you have more room to move about in on the Dragon."

The remaining questions are in the order asked.

NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins (left to right) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi (far right) inside SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule. For the Crew-1 mission, Hopkins was in command and Glover was the pilot of the Crew Dragon. Image: SpaceX

Shotwell: "Okay. So the first question comes from Eric Ruez, who's a propulsion technician in Raptor machining. And his question is: What were your thoughts as you were walking across the crew access arm?" 

Hopkins: "So my initial thoughts were don't trip [laughs]. You know one of the things you're thinking about is, is this really happening right? Because it's a long process from the time you start training to the time you actually lift off. And so you know we had some launch slips along the way and as you're walking across that arm you're still not sure if it's really going to happen because there's a lot of launch criteria that still have to be met before you...before you lift off the pad. So that's at least what I was thinking."

Walker: "And I was thinking all of that and I was also thinking of sort of the historic nature of walking across that access arm to the White Room. My first launch was out of Baikinour and now I got to launch out of Florida, so being able to launch where so many of my fellow astronauts had launched previously was something really special."

Shotwell: "Okay. From Justin Owens who's a CNC programmer, CNC is Computerized Numerically Controlled programmer in the Machining Department. My son Mason would like to know if the SpaceX suits are comfortable, and you can be totally candid here by the way, and how they compare to standard or other space suits, with respect to comfort?" 

Walker: "Well I think the first thing to know about space suits is that they're really made to fit you when you're sitting down. So when you're standing up, they're not quite tall enough and so they're not quite as comfortable when you're sitting in the spacecraft. [To Glover, would you agree with that? Glover nods] And then I would think that one thing that I have found about the SpaceX spacesuits is to me the helmet feels very very heavy. It's there for your head protection which is usually important, but I think it's going to be even more heavy when I land after six months."

Hopkins: "Yeah I found the suit very comfortable. Big shoutout to Chris, and Maria and the entire suit team. I think they did a fantastic job with it. I do find it fairly simple to get in, it is fairly simple to get in in space then it is down on the ground to get out of it. So overall I think, great suit."

One of the SpaceX spacesuits for the Crew Dragon DM-2 mission at the company's headquarters in 2019. SpaceX Headquarters, Image: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Shotwell: "Okay great, listen I appreciate that. Alright, Mitch Clelland, a senior test development engineer here at McGregor, Texas is asking, what appliances, so this is more futuristic, what appliances would you include in the cabin of the next-generation spacecraft for the greatest quality of life on long duration voyages?" 

Hopkins: "Yeah, that's a great question. So when you talk about long duration, to me that's, we're talking about something a little bit different than Dragon, which is you know of course meant for. the short duration. And so, you know we talk about long duration up here on the International Space Station. One of the things that, it's kind of a simple thing, it's a day-to-day type thing, but it's something that we're constantly having to figure out or find ways to do. And that's just general hygiene and things of that nature. We don't really have a place up there that's dedicated for that.

"And so you know we're kind of having to move around bags, or you're trying to do stowage operations and at the same time, someone's trying to clean up after a big workout and all of that. So I would say at least for me some of the simple things are important. They sometimes can get overlooked but I think you need to spend some time on em' and having a place that's dedicated for hygiene and when I say that I don't just mean going to the bathroom, obviously we need that. But I'm talking about places where you can clean up, wash your hair, do those kinds of things."

Walker: "Yeah exactly. If you're talking long long duration like a trip to Mars you're definitely going to need a hygiene station. And you're going to need things like how do you do laundry on station. We don't do laundry. We wear our clothes, and after a certain amount of time we throw them away. And if it's really really long duration then you're going to have to figure out a way to deal with all the trash that's generated. And there's a lot of trash that's generated, not the least of which is your clothes, your food trash, which will smell over time. And, just all kinds of things. So...trash. Trash compaction. Trash something. Trash management needs to happen [Glover laughs]."

SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell in 2015. Shotwell is known for trimming company CEO Elon Musk's project timelines to realistic target and being the go through for SpaceX clients. Image: SpaceX

Shotwell: "That's super helpful actually, as we're working on Starship. That's great. Okay so Ben Arquette, a lead avionics harness technical is asking what is something you learned from your trip to the ISS as the first fully operational four-person Crew Dragon mission. So maybe something that you learned new compared to Bob and Doug's [DM-2 astronauts] experience?"

Walker: "I think one of the things we learned and really took care with was living in the Dragon and how you do that since we spent a whole day there. You really have to have a lot of choreography and planned choreography to do the things you have to do. Getting out of your suits, getting into your suits. Distributing food to eat. Because well it is more spacious than a Soyuz, it can get pretty crowded when you have a bunch of stuff out there. So managing your stuff, how you deal with it and how you deal with four people."

Hopkins: "Yeah I think exactly what Shannon said and I'll maybe say it in a little bit different words. I think you have to be deliberate. Everything that we're doing up there, from the time after separation, when we're getting out of the suits, and we're having our first meal and we're changing into our clothes, all of that had to be very deliberate, who was ding what, when.

"Because if we weren't that way, it would have been just a bunch...on the video cameras you'd have seen just a bunch of arms and legs and it'd have been chaos. And the reason for that is because the whole time we also need to be ready for any kind of emergency that could pop up. So that means as you do certain things you clean up immediately afterward as well. So I think having four people on board really emphasized the need to do that. Because you just don't have as much space as you think, or as much time as you think if something like that should pop up."

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