On Thursday, SpaceX introduced its Dragon V2 spacecraft. It is the first SpaceX product which will be able to be manned for International Space Station (ISS) deliveries. The original Dragon design made history in 2012 by making the first commercial cargo delivery to the ISS. Dragon has already made three of 12 NASA contracted missions to the ISS, carrying cargo but not astronauts.
CEO Elon Musk unveiled the Dragon V2 on Thursday to the public in the Southern California SpaceX rocket factory. Musk emphasized its superiority over the previous Dragon model, which already has historical successes under its belt facilitating the $1.6 billion contract between NASA and SpaceX.
Musk informed the public that the Dragon V2 is engineered to “land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter.” While the current Dragon spacecraft needs the guidance of the station arm to dock at the ISS, Musk noted on Thursday that the Dragon V2 can dock autonomously or under a pilots direction without the need for the station arm.
As well as purportedly being able to land with the precision of a helicopter, the Dragon V2 is also designed to be able to be reused 10 times before servicing is required to ready it for further missions. Musk claimed at the SpaceX introduction that after a soft, propulsive landing, the Dragon V2 could be reloaded with propellant fuel and be space-worthy again for future ISS deliveries.
In the presentation Musk gave on Thursday, he touted the efficiency SpaceX is utilizing in their designs. “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.”
While the technical innovation promised with the Dragon V2 is exciting in itself to many, the spacecraft serves a much needed practical purpose for the continued participation of the United States at the ISS. As NASA continues to function as an underfunded, weakened government agency, it seeks contracts with private companies such as SpaceX to send astronauts to the ISS for continued outer space research.
NASA itself retired its fleet in 2011, with its last expedition to the ISS being the last shuttle mission, usingg the workhorse spacecraft Atlantis. This was a transitional period from public space programs to the new trend in NASA seeking contracts for ISS missions with private spacecraft manufacturers. SpaceX faces competition from Boeing and Sierra Nevada for spacecraft production and design.
NASA and its ISS missions have faced existential crisis lately not just from under-funding. The crisis in Ukraine led to NASA cutting most ties with its Russian counterpart, the country which has many interwoven ties with United States in regards to the ISS and space programs. The catch is that NASA relies on Russian spacecraft to shuttle American astronauts to the ISS, forking over about $70 million a seat to place an astronaut onto the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Although relations between the U.S. and Russia have been reaching abysmal levels for months now, NASA administrator Charles Bolden reassured Congress that the gulf between the countries over the Ukraine crisis will not hamper the U.S. space program. As recently as May 28, a NASA astronaut hitched a ride on the Soyuz for the ISS.
The May 28 flight was encouraging in light of recent sanctions against Russian, which prompted a Russian deputy prime minister infamously stating that Americans should consider using a trampoline if they want to get astronauts to the ISS. Regardless, the trend seems to favor privatizing shuttle engineering and contracting. The SpaceX introduction of the Dragon V2 for future International Space Station missions is more promising than contracting to trampoline manufacturers.
By Jesse Eells-Adams