Main Engine Cut Off

Farewell, Dragon

I left my day at college on the north side of Orlando early, right around lunch, and took a ride out to the Cape.

I couldn’t drive all the way out to the Cape, because, in what was a downright epic day for me, I had a flight to catch to fly back home to Philadelphia. I had my Flyers jersey on, because I had tickets that night to Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals.1

If all went right, I’d see a historic launch, make my flight, meet my brother and sister for the game, and the Flyers would tie the series at two games a piece and take it back to Chicago.

I pulled over somewhere east of Christmas, and settled in to watch SpaceX launch the first Falcon 9, and there was a Dragon boilerplate on top. It was undeniably the dawning of a new era.

Each of the three Shuttle orbiters had just a single flight left before retirement. The writing was on the wall for the Constellation program and its recent Ares I-X test—just 7 weeks before, at Kennedy, President Obama said his infamous line: “We’ve been there before.”

But there was a beam of hope in this plucky company from California that had ideas on how things could be different.

As the vehicle climbed, I was stunned by the silence—funny for a rocket launch, I know. Shuttle launches would cause people in the entire region to stop whatever they were doing and watch together. Everywhere between Orlando and the Cape would be packed with people getting a view, from the sides of the highways, or parking lots, or wherever else they could stop. Late night Shuttle launches would literally shake the ground 45 miles away in Orlando.

But as the glistening white Falcon 9 climbed, there was no noise. No pomp. No one seemed to notice.

I drove to the airport thinking about what the future might hold for this little company, and for our future in space. As I waited in the line at security, I wondered how the parachutes on the first stage held up. I wondered if the Flyers would keep the lineup the same after a great overtime win capped by a Claude Giroux goal.

My flight was delayed by a predictable late summer afternoon storm. It let up just in time to have me step into the stadium as starting lineups were announced. The Flyers won, I lost my voice, and there was a Dragon-shaped spacecraft 250 kilometers above us.

Just over 6 months later, I was back out at the Cape to watch the first Dragon mission. It featured yet another “This is truly a new era” moment, when SpaceX trimmed a cracked portion of the second stage engine nozzle the day before flight.

And now a decade later, a Dragon spacecraft was released from a robotic arm onboard the ISS and splashed down in the Pacific, for the final time. Eric Berger of Ars Technica wrote a wonderful send off of Dragon, complete with historical context for the company.

I wasn’t feeling overly sentimental, but then I read Eric’s piece and started thinking back. As Eric makes clear, it’s hard not to argue that Dragon and its Falcon counterpart are the defining vehicles of this era.

I can’t wait to watch the torch get passed to Dragon 2.

  1. There’s some odd connection here. I watched the first flight of Falcon 9 and hopped on a plane to see the Flyers in the Stanley Cup. And then 8 years later, I did the reverse—flying from Philadelphia the day after the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory to make it to the Cape for Falcon Heavy’s first flight. ↩︎