With the space shuttle program now officially over, the United States needs a new reusable vehicle for getting supplies to and from the International Space Station. NASA is considering the Dragon spacecraft, designed by California-based SpaceX Exploration Technologies, to take over that role. The Dragon’s scheduled late March/early April test flight to the ISS will be unmanned, utilizing a cargo configuration of the spacecraft. Last Friday, however, SpaceX released photographs of an engineering model of of its planned seven-passenger crew cabin, complete with a crew that included real live astronauts.
The four astronauts were among those present for the one-day NASA Crew Trial, in which SpaceX was seeking feedback on its design from industry professionals. The life-size model includes seven seats mounted to supporting structures on the capsule’s inner walls. Each seat is capable of holding an adult up to 6 feet 5 inches (1.96 meters) tall, and weighing up to 250 pounds (113.4 kg) – the seats also have liners that are custom-fit for each passenger. The mock-up additionally includes representations of lighting, environmental control/life support systems, displays, cargo racks and other systems.
The Crew Trial was overseen by personnel from NASA and SpaceX, and was intended to assess factors such as entry and egress of the Dragon in both regular and emergency scenarios, along with reach and visibility concerns for the occupants.
NASA awarded a contract to SpaceX in 2006, as part of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) development program. Four years later, using one of its Falcon 9 rockets, the company successfully launched an unmanned Dragon capsule into orbit – the capsule proceeded to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean, making SpaceX the first commercial company in history to re-enter a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit.
Since then, the company has started work on a reusable launch system to replace the Falcon 9, and has developed the SuperDraco engine, which would allow the Dragon to fly to safety in the event of a launch malfunction.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who is also the man behind PayPal and Tesla Motors, has always envisioned the Dragon primarily as a people-mover – in fact, he recently announced that he hopes to see it used in a manned mission to Mars.