As the commercial space sector continues to develop apace, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, is about to unveil what it hopes will become the enzyme for a revolution in U.S. manned space transportation.
Tonight (Thursday) at 7 p.m. PDT (10 p.m. EDT), the manned version of the company’s hugely successful Dragon space capsule will be shown off at a special invite-only event at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., by SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk.
The Dragon V2 is designed to carry seven astronauts (plus cargo) into orbit after being launched atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket system, which is proving to be a stalwart for U.S. access to to space. This hi-tech gumdrop-shaped spacecraft therefore has over twice the capacity of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, upon which NASA currently relies for manned access to the International Space Station. The aim is to make manned access to orbit (particularly to the ISS) as routine and low-cost as possible, making this an ‘astronaut taxi’ of sorts.
The capsule will sport a special launch abort system comprising of SuperDraco rockets that, should an emergency occur on the launch pad, will fire, launching the astronauts clear and carrying them to safety. The SuperDraco rockets have also been tapped as a potential powered landing solution should a future version of the Dragon be used to land humans on Mars.
Like SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon capsule, which just completed its third official cargo run and fifth mission to the space station, the Dragon V2 will reenter the atmosphere and splash down in the ocean after a parachute descent through the atmosphere.
Although SpaceX is undoubtedly leading the way, other commercial spaceflight companies are developing their own spacecraft.
Development of the Dragon V2 was in part funded by NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that aims to get a commercial space vehicle capable of getting humans into space by 2017. Other companies are working toward this common goal, including Sierra Nevada’s shuttle-like Dream Chaser spacecraft and Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft.
NASA is currently in the unsavory position of buying rides to space from Russia on board the veteran Soyuz vehicle, but the current political climate with Russia and the enduring Ukrainian crisis is putting the U.S.-Russia partnership in space under great strain. So if there ever was a good time to unveil a new U.S. spacecraft, now would be the time.