SpaceX’s first-gen Dragon cargo capsule left the ISS for the last time

Christine Fisher
Contributing Writer
A SpaceX Dragon resupply ship slowly approaches the ISS on Dec. 9, 2019.

This morning, a first-generation SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule left the International Space Station (ISS). The Dragon CRS-20 will return to Earth with more than 4,000 pounds of scientific experiments and other cargo, NASA said. This spacecraft, which has made three successful resupply runs to the ISS, will be grounded for good, as SpaceX prepares to focus on its Crew Dragon and a new variant designed for cargo, Space.com reports.

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft made history in 2012 when it became the first ever commercial spacecraft to dock with the ISS. Since then, Dragon cargo capsules have completed 20 resupply missions, delivering things like AI “crew members” and docking with the ISS for a few weeks at a time. A major selling point for the Dragon craft was that it could be reused -- like the Falcon 9 rockets used to launch it.

This marks the last flight in a $1.6 billion contract between NASA and SpaceX. Now, SpaceX is shifting its attention to the second-generation Dragon 2 capsule, which it will use for ISS resupply runs beginning in October. The new spacecraft will be able to fly up to five times, surpassing the three-trip max of its predecessor, and dock itself, rather than rely on a robotic arm to catch it.

SpaceX also plans to use the Dragon-2 capsule to deliver critical cargo, scientific experiments and other supplies to the Lunar Gateway, the staging point for Artemis program missions. The capsule will fly on top of the Falcon Heavy rocket and stay at the station for six to 12 months at a time.

First, though, we can expect the Crew Dragon Demo-2 test sometime next month. That will launch humans to space from US soil for the first time since 2011, and if it’s a success, the Crew Dragon will be certified to conduct operational crew flights to and from the ISS. The first of those flights is expected to launch later this year.