Space Exploration Technologies on Thursday unveiled its contender in a three-way competition to fly astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA.
Like its cargo ships, which began supply runs to the station in 2012, SpaceX’s passenger vehicle is called Dragon, but in many respects it is a totally different beast.
For starters, the upgraded capsules won’t be splashing down in the ocean. Instead they’ll be outfitted with powerful thruster rockets and landing legs for powered, pinpoint touchdowns on land.
“You’ll be able to land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter,” said SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk.
The billionaire technology entrepreneur, who also runs the Telsa electric car company, took the stage to unveil Dragon “Version 2″ to a jam-packed crowd at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif., factory and to an online audience of more than 32,500 watching a live webcast.
Dragon V2, designed to hold a crew of seven, can not only fly themselves back to the launch site. They’re also designed to dock themselves at the space station. The current Dragon capsules need to be berthed by the station’s robot arm.
The most visible changes are inside. Musk raised the Dragon’s hatch, which brought to mind those Falcon-wing doors on Tesla’s Model X, and stepped into what looked more like a movie set than a working spaceship.
“We’ve aimed for something … that is very clean, very simple,” Musk said.
The pilots’ controls are glass touchscreens — with manual buttons for critical systems that would be needed in an emergency. The black-and gold-seats are svelte. Dragon’s inner walls metallic honeycombs.
SpaceX doesn’t even know for sure that NASA will pick its design. Boeing is offering an alternative capsule. Sierra Nevada has a small winged ship that resembles the shuttle. NASA doesn’t have the money to support them all. It’s hoping to keep two in the running for a while yet, but more pressing is to have at least one space taxi ready to fly before the end of 2017.
Until then, the United States will keep paying Russia to fly crewmembers to the station, a service that currently costs more than $60 million per person. Musk says he can do something about that too. The biggest driver to land Dragons on land is so that they can be quickly and easily refurbished and reflown.
“If aircraft were thrown away with each flight, nobody would be able to fly … The same is true of rockets and spacecraft,” Musk said.
SpaceX also is working to fly its Falcon 9 rockets back to the launch site so they can be reused as well.
“So long as we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft we will never have true access to space. It’ll always be incredibly expensive,” he said.