There might be a bunch of companies competing to develop America's next-generation space capsule, but only one of them seems to have figured out the PR game. There was a definite Silicon Valley vibe to last night's unveiling of the Dragon V2. Replete with concept videos, countdowns, and curtain-raisings, the brief event was more flash than substance, but what we saw was certainly impressive.
Dragon V2, as the ship is being called, is (unsurprisingly!) the evolution of SpaceX's successful Dragon capsule, which has now made four deliveries to the International Space Station. CEO Elon Musk called the original Dragon a great "proof of concept," but proclaimed V2 a spaceship for the 21st century. No longer will it parachute down into the ocean; instead, it will use rockets to land with the precision of a helicopter anywhere on Earth. With engines 160 times more powerful than the original, Dragon V2 will be multiply redundant for enhanced crew safety. Beyond that, advances in heat shield and engine design will allow the new ship to be quickly reusable. The company claims this could dramatically lower the cost putting people in space. Today, it costs NASA $71 million per astronaut to hitch rides aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. With tensions rising between the US and Russia, even that amount of money might not be enough to get future Americans to space.
Speaking of the crew, the Dragon V2 will seat seven in a two row configuration. The pilot and copilot will use four giant touchscreens to control the spacecraft. But even those might not be needed that often. Unlike its older sibling, the new Dragon will be able to dock completely autonomously with the ISS - no more getting close and waiting to be grabbed by a station astronaut.
Musk didn't take any question during the presentation and many aspects of the spacecraft remain unknown. SpaceX hopes to begin testing crewed flights by late next year or early 2016, but it's unknown when Dragon V2 might begin to make unmanned test flights. But, SpaceX's vision is clear: when Dragon V2 is combined with a reusable Falcon 9 rocket, the company can offer a completely-reusable space system to ferry cargo and crew into Earth orbit. If successful, this could dramatically lower the cost of putting people and supplies into space. With budgets tight, that will help NASA save every penny...