New spacecraft boasts features that could make space travel more common and affordable in the future.
With its original space shuttle hanging from the rafters overhead, SpaceX and its CEO Elon Musk unveiled the Dragon V2, an update to the original spacecraft that has been ferrying supplies to the International Space Station since 2012.
The biggest upgrade to this previously unmanned spacecraft is that it’s designed to carry both cargo and up to seven human passengers. However, this is not the only significant advancement it introduces. Dragon V2 is a reusable vehicle with the ability to land on solid ground (as opposed to jarring sea landings) with the precision of a helicopter and without parachutes.
Using eight 3D-printed superalloy engines called SuperDraco thrusters, the craft can create enough force to slow itself down for a smooth landing. Emergency or contingency plans have also vastly improved because the new engines allow crew members to abort the launch at any time during the ascent. In the past, this had to be done in the first few minutes of the flight. The craft can land smoothly with as few as two of the four thrusters firing and is still equipped with parachutes for a water landing should that become necessary.
The inside of the craft was designed with simplicity in mind. It’s equipped with touch interfaces, an overhead screen and pilot control though a palm-sized handle. In the chance of system failure, emergency switches are configured for manual operation.
While further trials and test flights are needed, it’s expected that the Dragon V2 can endure 10 trips to the space station without needing major servicing. Even after this quota is reached, the heat shield may be the only part needing service or replacement.
Musk expects the first Dragon V2 launch with humans to be made by the end of 2016 and hopes to keep the cost for each flight down to $20 million.
One can’t help but feel like this is an important contribution to space travel even if we have to wait for these features to migrate over to tourism-focused ventures like Virgin Galactic. It’s inspiring to remember that technology today isn’t limited to websites or consumer devices. There are visionaries out there striving to make the future just as memorable as our first man on the moon nearly 45 years ago.