Sometimes it seems SpaceX is the only company actively pushing human spaceflight into the future. Yesterday chairman Elon Musk unveiled, with characteristic showmanship, the crew version of his Dragon cargo capsule. Dragon 2, tentatively scheduled to debut in 2016 (depending on whether it wins NASA funding for commercial crew transportation) will carry up to seven people, and would use newly qualified SuperDraco thrusters and landing legs to bring the capsule down with helicopter-like accuracy on hard ground—as opposed to the ocean splashdowns planned for NASA’s Orion capsule and the hard parachute landing of Russia’s current Soyuz capsule.
Musk sees this as a big step toward reusable spacecraft that can be quickly refueled and flown again. “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 said at yesterday’s unveiling (see the video below). After showing an animation of Dragon 2 descending to a fiery (but smooth) touchdown, Musk asserted to the crowd “That is how a 21st century spaceship should land.”
The next step, pending FAA approval, is to test such landings for real, using a prototype called DragonFly at the company’s test range in rural McGregor, Texas, halfway between Dallas and Austin. SpaceX has already tested a smaller landing vehicle called Grasshopper at the same site.
The DragonFly test program, due to begin later this year and run into 2015, calls for 30 flights, beginning with helicopter drop tests from a height of 10,000 feet, then progressing to propulsive takeoffs and landings—first with a parachute, then with thrusters only. The operational Dragon 2 would always carry a parachute as backup in case the landing rockets failed.
The inside of the new capsule looks futuristic as well, with foldaway display panels and porthole windows all around. “We aim for the interfaces and overall aesthetic to be very clean and very simple,” said Musk. What else would you expect from a 21st century spaceship?