Unveiling The Dragon: Elon Musk Shows Off New Astronaut Spacecraft
May 30, 2014

Unveiling The Dragon: Elon Musk Shows Off New Astronaut Spacecraft

[ Watch the Video: SpaceX Unveils Dragon V2 ]

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

SpaceX has been paving the way for American-based commercial space ventures for quite some time now, proving its worth as a launch provider for International Space Station supply runs with its Dragon spacecraft. As of Thursday evening, the company is also boasting its potential worth as a crewed mission launcher with the unveiling of its latest spacecraft.

The Dragon V2, unveiled at the launch company’s Hawthorne, California-based Rocket Development Center on Thursday evening, was developed to carry up to seven astronauts to space for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

The Dragon V2 is an upgraded version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, including solar arrays affixed to the side of the capsule’s trunk instead of using fold-out wings and a new launch escape system that will allow crew members to escape at any point during the launch sequence in the event of a problem. The upgraded spacecraft can carry astronauts as well as precious cargo.

The technology fused into Dragon V2 would enable rapid reloading and reusability of the spacecraft, Musk explained. He noted that rockets and supply crafts of the past returned to Earth only to burn up in the atmosphere and/or crash at sea. But SpaceX is paving the way to reusable rockets and spacecraft and has already shown success.

"You can just reload, propel it and fly again," Musk told The Associated Press. "This is extremely important for revolutionizing access to space because as long as we continue to throw away rockets and space crafts, we will never truly have access to space. It'll always be incredibly expensive."

"If an aircraft is thrown away with each flight, nobody will be able to fly or very few (can)," he said. "The same is true with rockets and spacecraft."

“The capsule also features a bright, sleek interior with swing-up computer screens at the control station, a two-level seating system to accommodate up to seven astronauts and large windows for them to marvel at Earth's curvature. The cone-shaped cap can open to allow for the manned craft to dock at the Space Station on its own. The spacecraft also has more powerful engines, better heat shields, the landing legs and backup parachutes to ensure a soft landing,” wrote AP’s Raquel Maria Dillon.

SpaceX has already proven itself to NASA as a venerable supplier to the orbiting lab, sending four Dragon spacecraft to the ISS, of which three were under contract. The company has another nine contracted missions to supply the station with goods and is now looking toward returning man to orbit from US soil.

Since the retirement of its flagship Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA has been relying on Russia to ferry its astronauts to the ISS at more than $70 million per astronaut. With the current fiasco between Russia and Crimea, as well as the rising tensions between the former Soviet Union and the US, SpaceX’s latest Dragon V2 may soon offer NASA a safe and reliable alternative.

But the company’s Dragon V2 may not be intended only to haul astronauts into orbit. SpaceX has a vision of sending humans deeper into space than any has ever gone before, including visits to Mars within the next 20 years.

Elon Musk, the man behind SpaceX, said the company is focusing on what Dragon V2 will need to do to operate successfully in deep space, noting that the company is applying lessons learned from the cargo-only version of Dragon and from NASA’s 50+ years of human spaceflight.

SpaceX has already planned to conduct the first pad abort test later this year, followed by an in-flight abort test. Musk is hoping to have humans on the craft by 2016, ending NASA’s reliance on Russia and its Soyuz capsule.

In an interview with Ars Technica, Musk said that NASA is being cautious, however. “From a SpaceX standpoint we expect to be ready to transport crew by 2016,” he said. “We feel fairly confident that we’ll be ready in two years.”

While SpaceX may soon be ready to ferry astronauts into space, it isn’t the only company working toward that goal. Longtime NASA contractor Boeing is also in the hunt to return the US to manned mission status.

However, there’s still a long way to go before astronauts will be able to launch on privately built spacecraft, said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

He told AP that progress by private firms is slower than anticipated mainly because NASA has not received the necessary funding from Congress to make it happen. Logsdon noted that it is important for the US to end its reliance on Russia given the political tension over annexation of Crimea.

"It's essential to have our own capability to transport people to space," he said. "This is an important step in that direction."