On Thursday, May 29, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) founder and CEO Elon Musk unveiled his Hawthorne, Calif.-based company’s new Dragon spacecraft, the Dragon V2, for returning human spaceflight capability to the United States and ending our nation’s total dependence on Russia for flying astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The highly anticipated unveiling, which took place at SpaceX Headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., showed off the new spacecraft, capable of flying a crew of seven astronauts at a time, and highlighted many of its unique capabilities—and there are plenty.
“When we first created Dragon V1 we didn’t really know how to create a spacecraft, we never designed a spacecraft before, so, while there are a lot of interesting technologies in Dragon V1 it does have a relatively conventional landing approach by throwing off parachutes and landing in water off the coast of CA after it comes back from the ISS,” said Musk moments before dropping the curtain on Dragon V2. “It’s a great spacecraft and 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, but going from V1 we wanted to take a big step in technology.”
SpaceX currently flies their Dragon V1 to carry out a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, signed in late 2008, to conduct 12 dedicated Dragon resupply missions to the ISS by 2016, missions which promise to haul a total of 44,000 pounds of equipment and supplies to the orbiting outpost. Dragon V1 was the first commercial spacecraft to visit the ISS, and the first commercial spacecraft to return to Earth from orbit. It has flown to, and from, the ISS four times, starting with the inaugural Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Demo mission in May 2012 and followed by the dedicated CRS-1 and CRS-2 missions in October 2012 and March 2013, and, most recently, the CRS-3 mission just last month.
However, Elon Musk has always said he wants to bring American human spaceflight capability back to the nation and give humanity the means to become a multi-planet species, at much cheaper than any government can do, and even though the Dragon V1 does have a life support system it’s not one that can last for a long time or carry a lot of people. That’s where the Dragon V2 comes in, and its landing method will be quite different, too.
“Dragon V2 still retains the parachutes of Dragon V1, but V2 will be able to land anywhere on land propulsively, and do so anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter, which is something I think a modern spaceship should be able to do,” said Musk. “When Dragon V2 reaches a particular altitude a few miles before landing it will test the engines and verify that all the engines are working before proceeding to a propulsive landing, and if there is any anomaly detected with the engines or propulsion system it will then deploy the parachutes to ensure a safe landing, even in the event that the propulsion system is not working. All around I think it’s really a big leap forward in technology, it really takes things to the next level.”
“Even after starting the propulsion system it can afford to lose up to two engines and still land safely,” added Musk. “After the engines are started it will then deploy the landing legs for a soft landing. This is really important, apart from the convenience of the landing location, because it enable rapid reusability of the spacecraft, you can just reload propellants and fly again. This is extremely important for evolutionizing access to space because as long as we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft we will never truly have access to space, it will always be incredibly expensive.”
Musk offered the following scenario for comparison:
“If aircraft were thrown away after each flight then nobody would be able to fly, or very few, maybe a small number of customers. The same is true of rockets and spacecraft, so that’s really why it’s so important to be able to land propulsively, land on land and be able to reload propellants and take off again.”
The biggest upgrade, at least from a propulsion standpoint, is the addition of the SuperDraco engines, a “superpowered” version of the Dragon V1 Draco engines used to maneuver in space and control the spacecraft’s trajectory during reentry. Dragon V2 will still use the original Draco thrusters for maneuvering in space, but the V2’s SuperDraco thrusters will serve both as part of the vehicle’s launch escape system and enable propulsive landing on land. A total of eight SuperDraco’s are built into the side walls of the Dragon V2 and will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust (16,000 pounds of thrust each, compared to 100 pounds of thrust each with the original Draco thrusters). The engines also come in pairs, so if one engine fails the other can increase its thrust to compensate for the engine that is not firing.
The SuperDraco engines on the Dragon V2 are also the first fully 3-D printed engines intended for space. The chamber is regeneratively cooled and printed in Inconel, a high-performance superalloy that offers both high strength and toughness for increased reliability; they will become the first printed rocket engines ever used in spaceflight. It was only a couple days ago that SpaceX completed qualification testing for the SuperDraco thruster at the company’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas, which included testing across a variety of conditions including multiple starts, extended firing durations, and extreme off-nominal propellant flow and temperatures.
“Through 3-D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods,” said Musk. “SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before.”
VIDEO: SpaceX Dragon 2 Flight Animation. CREDIT: SpaceX
The first flight demonstration of the new SuperDraco’s is expected to occur later this year during a pad abort test, as is outlined under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) initiative.
Another big difference between the V1 and the new V2 is in its docking system. Current spacecraft, including the Dragon V1, require the Space Station’s robotic Canadarm for docking; the Dragon V2 can dock autonomously (or piloted) without the arm, which alone is quite a significant upgrade from spacecraft that came before.
During the unveiling Musk also took his rightful seat inside the spacecraft to show off the interior design of the Dragon V2, giving everyone a taste of what astronauts can expect to see as they make their way to and from space.
“We aimed for something with Dragon V2 for the interfaces and the overall aesthetic of something that’s very clean and very simple,” said Musk while sitting onboard his spacecraft. “As the pilot you are able to interact with the screens overhead and control the spacecraft, and then we’ve got all the critical functions needed in an emergency situation as manual buttons.”
The retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in 2011 also ended America’s ability to send our own astronauts to and from space until a new vehicle is developed. In the time since the space agency has been forced to pay Russia for seats on their Soyuz spacecraft for access to and from the ISS, at a cost of over $70 million per seat, and Russia continues to increase that cost every time NASA has to sign a new contract for those rides. Not only that, but Russia and the United States are currently trading jabs in the political arena over sanctions imposed by the U.S. over Russia’s de facto annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region, and Russia has not been shy about reminding the U.S. that we need them for access to and from a space station that the American taxpayers primarily paid for (some estimates put the total cost of the ISS at over $100 billion).
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who also serves as head of both the Russian Defense Ministry and Russian Space Program, even went so far as to say, “I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline,” in a comment made publicly several weeks ago.
“We are in a bad situation here, it’s not really the fact that Russia is taunting the United States for access to and from space, but they are also massively overcharging,” said Musk. “What we are providing for NASA would bring the cost per astronaut down to less than $20 million. That assumes a low flight rate, in a high flight rate that cost could potentially drop into the single digit millions.”
Elon Musk and his SpaceX are not the only ones competing to secure NASA contracts for transporting crews to and from orbit; Boeing and Sierra Nevada are also in the game and are currently developing the CST-100 spacecraft and the Dream Chaser respectively. All three companies are developing their spacecraft with seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in a public/private partnership to return human spaceflight capability to the United States by 2017.
Dragon V2’s first orbital demonstration flight, which will be unmanned and fully autonomous, is expected to launch atop the company’s own Falcon-9 rocket from the historic Kennedy Space Center launch pad 39A in 2015, with the first crewed flight expected in 2016.
“From a SpaceX standpoint we expect to be ready to transport crew by 2016,” said Musk. “We feel fairly confident that we’ll be ready in two years.”