SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently unveiled the independent aerospace transportation developer’s latest spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, and eventually — Musk hopes — far beyond.
Musk showed off the Dragon V2 at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. during a glam and glitz press event worthy of Tony Stark, where he explained his super-hero worthy ambition — to ferry astronauts to Mars.
“That’s where things need to go in the long term,” Musk said.
Hundreds of guests, press, employees and VIPs cheered when the literal curtain dropped unveiling the manned-spaceflight version of the company’s Dragon capsule, which was the first private company vehicle to carry cargo and dock with the ISS.
SpaceX along with Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. have been getting more than $1 billion from NASA to develop a replacement for the shuttle fleet after its retirement in 2011. In the coming months NASA is expected to decide which company it will contract with to send astronauts into space from American soil again by 2017.
Musk’s company already has several advantages over competing companies – Dragon V1 has already been flying routine missions to the ISS for the last two years and is developing the first-ever reusable rocket, which will deploy landing legs and return to Earth for multiple uses with a huge cost-saving benefit.
SpaceX is also the only one out of the three to build its own rocket engines right here in the U.S., as opposed to buying them from Russia – an option which before long may no longer be available.
NASA’s efforts have been accelerated in recent months after multiple Russian threats to stop carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS in retaliation to U.S. economic sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.
Currently NASA pays more than $70 million-per seat for its astronauts to ride on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS.
“It’s not merely the fact that Russia is taunting the United States for lack of manned access to space, but they’re also massively overcharging,” Musk said during the event. “The quote that we’ve provided NASA would allow the cost per astronaut to be potentially less that $20 million, and that assumes a low-flight rate – in a high-flight rate, it could potentially get to the single-digit millions.”
For the Dragon V2 the company added seven seats for the crew, life-support systems, instrument panels and a new SuperDraco thruster system to push the capsule and crew to safety if something went wrong during launch. the 3-D-printed metal thrusters were recently approved for flight tests according to NBC News.
During the event Musk climbed inside the capsule and moved from seat to seat showcasing the capsule to the live cameras.
“That’s going to be a lot easier in zero-G, by the way,” Musk said.
According to Musk the majority of the onboard equipment is ready for flight testing. The company is planning its first series of launch abort tests for 2014, and its first unmanned orbital flight by 2015. Test-piloted orbital flights would follow in 2016, putting the company on track to easily meet NASA’s 2017 deadline.
Much like its Falcon 9 reusable rocket design, SpaceX plans to eventually add landing legs to allow the spacecraft to touch down on land as opposed to traditional capsule ocean recovery.
“That is how a 21st-century spaceship should land,” Musk said.
Test flights of the leg-equipped version — the DragonFly — will commence at the SpaceX facility in Texas once the company obtains approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“This is going to be a fabulous machine,” Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow said after trying out the Dragon’s seats. Bigelow is currently designing its own private-sector space station, which could potentially rely on Dragon for transport. “SpaceX deserves all the credit in the world. … This is really a fork in the road for space exploration.”
Musk said the Dragon could eventually be used for landing on the moon and Mars with the help of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or BFR rockets, which are currently under development for deep space exploration.
“Maybe, to some degree, this helps revive the dream of Apollo,” Musk said.