LOS ANGELES – A sleek, white gumdrop-shaped space capsule that aims to carry up to seven astronauts to the International Space Station and return to land anywhere on Earth was unveiled by SpaceX.
The Dragon V2, short for version two, is the first attempt by a private company to restore Americans' ability to send people to the orbiting space station in the wake of the space shuttle program's retirement in 2011. "It's all around, I think, really a big leap forward in technology. It really takes things to the next level," said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
SpaceX is competing with other companies -- including Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin -- to be the first commercial outfit to take astronauts to space, possibly as early as 2017. Until then, the world's astronauts must rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft at a cost of $70 million per seat. The Dragon V2 was shown for the first time at a jam-packed evening press conference in Hawthorne, California.
The shiny Dragon V2 sat on a white stage floor, as a scorched Dragon cargo capsule was suspended above, bearing the blackened markings of a capsule that had returned to Earth from orbit. SpaceX's Dragon capsule in 2012 became the first private spacecraft to carry supplies to the ISS and back. Since then, Orbital Sciences has followed with its Cygnus, a capsule shaped like a beer keg that can carry supplies to the space station but burns upon re-entry to Earth's atmosphere.
Musk said a key feature of the Dragon V2 is that it will be able to "land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter." The crew spacecraft will be able to use rocket propulsion and deploy legs to land, instead of using parachutes to make an ocean splash-landing the way the cargo capsule does. It will however still have parachutes that it can use for a landing in case any engine problems are detected before touchdown on Earth.
The V2 also carries an improved heat shield and will be able to autonomously dock with the space station, instead of needing the space station's robotic arm to catch it and pull it in. "That is a significant upgrade as well," Musk said. Musk touted the reusability of the Dragon V2, allowing it to cut back on expensive space journeys. "You can just reload propellant and then fly again. This is extremely important for revolutionizing access to space," Musk said.
"Because – as long as – we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft, we will never have true access to space. It will always be incredibly expensive," he added. "If aircraft were thrown away with each flight, nobody would be able to fly." The Internet entrepreneur and billionaire co-founder of PayPal did not say when the Dragon V2's first test flight would take place. Ever since the US space shuttle program ended in 2011, the world's astronauts have depended on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to reach the ISS, an orbiting outpost built and maintained by more than a dozen countries.
SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin have all received millions of dollars in NASA funds to help them develop next-generation spacecraft that will someday carry astronauts to space. SpaceX has said its crew capsule may be able to reach the ISS with astronauts aboard by 2017. Meanwhile, NASA says it is focusing on building a new deep space capsule that could take humans to Mars by the 2030s.