The Spacecraft Tarot: SpaceX Dragon

Tippy Ki Yay
5 min readMay 2, 2021
The original watercolor illustration is by me, Tippy Ki Yay. The background image is Hubble imagery and the credit belongs to NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted (STScI).

The Chariot is the drive that pulls us forward.

Whatever grips you with a feverish passion, whatever keeps you up all night when you should have been asleep, and whatever keeps you dreaming long after you have woken up — that is the Chariot, dragging your heart along with it.

The Chariot drives you to your destination not unlike a rocket, ripping itself off the face of the planet with fiery speeds. NASA’s Moon landing program in the 1960s was named Apollo after the Greek god who pulled the Sun along the sky with his golden chariot. With ample determination and a little luck, the Chariot can carry your wildest dreams to fruition.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft rolls to Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in preparation for the uncrewed Demo-1 mission on Feb. 28, 2019. Image Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Before the SpaceX Crew Dragon disrupted the status quo and revolutionized the space industry, only two vehicles were human-rated for transport to and from the International Space Station — one of which has now been discontinued for over a decade. The SpaceX team set its goals high, and in a display of unstoppable drive and incredible ambition, became the first private company to design, own, and operate a crew capsule to and from the orbiting laboratory.

Since the first crew arrived to the International Space Station on November 2, 2000, human beings have lived continuously aboard the orbiting laboratory. Astronauts, cosmonauts, and spaceflight participants from all over the world have made the epic journey to low-Earth orbit.

Human transportation to and from the space station followed a steady rhythm for the first ten years of its occupancy. Human beings launched aboard the space shuttle from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, or they launched aboard the Soyuz from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kaszakhstan.

Teams transport the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft by train to its launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on October 8, 2007. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

This pattern was temporarily broken following the space shuttle Columbia disaster on February 1, 2003. Following a 16-day mission to run various experiments in the microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit, the vehicle shattered upon re-entry. Unbeknownst to the STS-107 crew, apiece of insulating foam from the fuel tanks had broken off during launch and created a hole in the wing of the shuttle. The breach widened as superheated air entered the cavity during re-entry, causing the shuttle to break apart. The crew of seven did not survive.

As the agency was left to pick up the pieces of the disaster, both literally and figuratively, the space shuttle fleet was temporarily grounded. During the two and a half years that NASA recovered, the Soyuz TMA spacecraft picked up the slack.

The space shuttle enjoyed only a few more years of service until July 21, 2011, when Atlantis safely landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, successfully concluding the STS-135 mission and the 30-year history of space shuttle flights. Human transportation to the space station suddenly became limited to the Soyuz.

The final mission of NASA’s space shuttle program lands on Runway 15 at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011. Image Credit: NASA/Kenny Allen

To lessen dependence the Soyuz, NASA implemented the Commercial Crew Program that same year. Private companies competed against one another for the opportunity to create a new transport vehicle for the space agency, while NASA could focus its efforts on other endeavors, such as returning humanity to the Moon with future Artemis missions.

In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing and SpaceX with contracts. Boeing, in addition to developing on space systems, also builds commercial airplanes and defense products. SpaceX is an aerospace company that aims to reduce space transportation costs in order to eventually build human colonies on Mars. In contrast to Boeing, which boasts over 100 years as a company, SpaceX was founded in 2002 and is relatively “new” to the scene.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket propels the Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station on May 30, 2020. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

While Boeing focused efforts on the Starliner spacecraft, SpaceX began adapting their successful Cargo Dragon vehicle for crew. NASA and SpaceX have used the Cargo Dragon to transport science experiments, fuel, and fresh food to the International Space Station since 2012. The Crew Dragon design is known for unique features such as touch screens, the ability to carry large amounts of cargo back to Earth in addition to crew, and the ability to dock autonomously to the space station.

Both Starliner and Crew Dragon experienced delays on the way to the launchpad — however, SpaceX beat Boeing to the punch. Following a successful uncrewed flight test to and from the space station in 2019, SpaceX was ready for the next step: a crewed flight test.

SpaceX Crew-5 Commander Nicole Aunapu Mann during a Crew Dragon cockpit training session at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Image Credit: SpaceX

On May 30, 2020, the Crew Dragon made history when NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken successfully launched to the International Space Station in the first commercially built spacecraft designed to transport humans during the Demo-2 mission. After docking to the station and living aboard the orbiting laboratory for about a month, Hurley and Behnken returned home in the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which the two of them had christened “Endeavour.” The feat represented decades of hard work, persistence, and ingenuity of both the NASA and SpaceX teams — especially considering that the Endeavour launched and landed in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.

The successful test flight ushered in a new era of space exploration where public-private partnerships open up access to the heavens. With more and more private companies setting their sights on space, more civilians than ever before are scoring opportunities to experience low-Earth orbit first-hand.

The Crew-2 mission aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour approaches the International Space Station on April 24, 2021. Image Credit: NASA

With the successful crewed flight test under its belt, the Crew Dragon vehicle became available to be contracted for long-duration missions. At the time this piece was written, five crews have successfully flown to the space station aboard Dragon. Crew-6 is currently scheduled to launch no earlier than February 26, 2023.

Just like the Chariot, Crew Dragon teaches us to not back down from our dreams. If they are wild and impractical, even better — the brighter they are, the harder you will fight for them. Keep the flame of your passion lit and your determination sharp. The Chariot has the ability to propel you higher than you ever thought possible.

Allow yourself to be carried.

Astronaut Anne McClain captured this image of the SpaceX Demo-1 mission approaching the International Space Station on March 3, 2019. Image Credit: NASA/Anne McClain

Read the complete Spacecraft Tarot series.

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