Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur behind the private spaceflight company SpaceX, unveiled his firm's latest innovation — the Dragon V2 manned spaceship —Thursday night (May 29) in a stylish debut for the 21st-century space taxi for astronauts.
SpaceX's Dragon Version 2 crewed spacecraft has a sleek interior design, complete with a large tablet-like computer that swivels down in front of the capsule's tan leather seats. The manned space capsule can ferrying up to seven astronauts to and from destinations like the International Space Station, Musk said during the reveal, which SpaceX webcast live online from its headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
"I think it's really a big leap forward in technology," Musk said. "It really takes things to the next level." [See more photos of the newly revealed Dragon Version 2]
"When we first created Dragon Version 1, we didn't know how to create a spacecraft," Musk said. "We'd never designed a spacecraft before … It's a great spacecraft, and it was a great proof of concept. It showed us what it took to bring something back from orbit, which is a very difficult thing to do. Usually when something comes in from orbital velocity, it burns up in a big fireball. But going from Dragon Version 1, we wanted to take a big step in technology."
SpaceX has been launching unmanned Dragon Version 1 capsules to the space station since 2012 using its Falcon 9 rockets. The company has flown three of 12 cargo missions to the station for NASA under a $1.6 billion deal. The Dragon V2 is SpaceX's entry to fly NASA astronauts to the station as part of the U.S. space agency's commercial crew program.
Rival aerospace companies Boeing and Sierra Nevada are also developing their own commercial space taxis as part of that competition. NASA's commercial crew program is expected to make a decision on which vehicles to advance into the next selection phase by July or August, with the goal of a manned flight by 2017.
The new Dragon V2 is an updated version of the company's robotic Dragon capsule — currently used to take cargo to the space station and bring materials back to Earth. At the moment, the Dragon is the only robotic cargo vessel that can bring supplies back to the planet from the station. (Another company, the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, has a $1.9 billion contract to deliver station cargo, but its Cygnus vehicles are intentionally destroyed at mission's end.)
SpaceX's new spacecraft is designed to be reusable and it should be able to touchdown back on land with the accuracy of a helicopter, Musk added.
"That is how a 21st-century spaceship should land," he said.
Unlike the unmanned version of the Dragon, which uses the station's robotic arm to berth to the orbiting outpost, Version 2 will be able to autonomously dock to the space station. A pilot will also be able to park the spacecraft using manual controls if needed, Musk said.
Dragon V2 also is a demonstration in new technologies. SpaceX engineers have updated the capsule's heat shield and the new spaceship is outfitted with SuperDraco thrusters that can be used to move the capsule and astronauts to a safe distance if something goes wrong during launch. The SuperDraco thrusters should also aid in landings, slowing the spacecraft down as it gets closer to the ground.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the intention of lowering the cost of spaceflight with affordable, reusable technologies. Dragon Version 2 can be rapidly reusable, according to Musk.
"You can just reload propellants and fly again," Musk said. "This is extremely important for revolutionizing access to space because so long as we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft, we will never have true access to space. It will always be incredibly expensive."
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