Having teased the public by showing off the SuperDraco engine, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has taken the wraps off the Dragon V2 manned spacecraft that it’s designed to propel. At a brief media event at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California headquarters, Musk introduced the larger, more powerful version of the reusable Dragon capsule, which will one day carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and return to Earth to land under its own power.
The first unmanned version of the the SpaceX Dragon will already be familiar to the space-conscious segment of the public. Developed in part under a NASA initiative to find a privately owned and operated replacement for the retired Space Shuttle, the Dragon recently completed its third cargo mission to the ISS and has another scheduled in a few months time.
Though the spacecraft has enjoyed considerable success, SpaceX has always seen it as an interim step toward the company’s ultimate goal of a fully reusable manned capsule capable of making a powered landing on Earth and other planets with the precision of a helicopter.
Billed as a “step-change in spacecraft technology,” the Dragon V2 that Musk unveiled is larger and more streamlined than the first Dragon, with a cabin large enough to accommodate up to seven astronauts for several days in orbit in what appears to be business-class comfort.
The interior has a futuristic set of seats and a pilot seat with a touchscreen control panel that Captain Picard would be comfortable with. Only the joystick is analog and only critical emergency systems have manual buttons. According to Musk, the capsule has a much more sophisticated piloting system, so it can dock with the space station autonomously or under the control of a pilot instead of relying on one of the ISS’s robotic arms.
For returning to Earth, the Dragon V2 has the third version of the PICA-X heatshield, which is SpaceX’s improvement on NASA’s Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) heat shield. This shield protects the capsule during reentry and because it ablates less than previous versions, Dragon V2 can carry out more flights before needing a refit.
The capsule has eight SuperDraco engines, which are 200 times more powerful than the Draco engines used on the current Dragon. Putting out 16,400 lb of thrust each, the SuperDraco engines will allow the new Dragon, when fully developed, to return to its spaceport and make a powered landing.
However, Musk points out that Dragon V2 still carries a parachute, but that’s only a backup system in the event of a malfunction of the SuperDraco engines, which can still make a landing if two of the eight engines fail. If the landing is successful, Musk says that all the Dragon V2 needs to fly again is refueling.