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SpaceX reveals new-look passenger spacecraft

Posted: May 29, 2014

HAWTHORNE, Calif. -- Eyeing the next step beyond launching satellites and supplies, SpaceX dropped the curtain Thursday on the design of an upgraded Dragon spacecraft, replete with 3D printed rocket engines, leather seats, and touchscreen cockpit controls for up to seven astronauts.

Animation of the crew-capable Dragon Version 2. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk debuted the space capsule from the company's headquarters here before a crowd of employees, VIPs and media.

The white gumdrop-shaped space capsule, dubbed Dragon Version 2, is about halfway through development in a public-private cost-sharing arrangement between SpaceX and NASA, Musk said.

The current iteration of the Dragon capsule has flown five times, all successfully, including three operational cargo deliveries to the space station under a $1.6 billion commercial resupply contract with NASA.

"Going from Dragon Version 1, we wanted to take a big step in technology," Musk said. "Some important characteristics of that is the ability to land anywhere on land propulsively. You'll be able to land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter, which is something I think a modern spaceship should be able to do."

The spaceship can host up to seven astronauts for several days on its own after launching on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. It can withstand a half-year in orbit when docked to the International Space Station.

The capsule showcased Thursday featured touchscreen displays and seven leather seats emblazoned with a SpaceX logo. Musk described the interior during a webcast of the announcement.

"We've aimed for something with Dragon Version 2 for the interfaces and the overall aesthetic of something that's very clean -- very simple. As the pilot, you're able to interact with the screens overhead and control the spacecraft, and then we've got all the critical functions that are needed in an emergency situation as manual buttons."

Speaking with reporters after the event, Musk said the touchscreen technology was borrowed brom Tesla, his electric car company.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk presents Dragon Version 2 at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Credit: Gene Blevins/LA Daily News
"The biggest difference [between the two Dragon versions] is the SuperDracos," said Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut and manager of SpaceX's commercial crew transportation program. "We can do launch abort and also return to land. There's a lot of other more subtle differences, but that's the big one."

The crew-capable Dragon will still feature a trunk section to carry unpressurized cargo, but the extendable power-producing solar panels on the resupply version of the capsule are replaced by fixed panels attached to the craft's body. It is also designed to be reused up to 10 times without major refurbishment.

Reisman said SpaceX is aiming to launch crews on Dragon spacecraft and complete an autopilot docking with the International Space Station on the same day.

"Another [difference] is this one gets to the space station all by itself. You don't have to grab it with the space station's robot arm."

After training on the venerable Russian Soyuz spacecraft before a three-month expedition on the space station, Reisman said SpaceX's Dragon offers a roomier ride for astronauts.

"There's so much more elbow room in there compared to the Soyuz," he said. "Instead of just bringing two of your buddies, you can bring six ... It's got modern electronics, it's got modern materials in the heat shield. So technologically, it's a giant leap beyond the Soyuz."

NASA is in the middle of a months-long process to select one or two companies to finish developing privately-owned, government-funded spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. Officials say NASA plans to announce its decision in August or September.

SpaceX, Boeing Co., and Sierra Nevada Corp. currently receive funding from NASA. Boeing and SpaceX won agreements in August 2012 worth $460 million and $440 million, respectively, to work on their CST-100 and Dragon capsules. Sierra Nevada was selected at the same time to continue development of the Dream Chaser lifting body spacecraft at a slower pace, receiving an award worth up to $212.5 million.

NASA pays the companies upon the completion of certain milestones, such as tests and design reviews.

NASA to date has committed $525 million to SpaceX, pending payments at the completion of several more milestones later this year. Once Boeing finishes work under its agreement with NASA, the aerospace giant will have received $580 million. Payments to Sierra Nevada will total $323 million at the end its agreement later this year.

A look inside the seven-seat Dragon spacecraft. Credit: Gene Blevins/LA Daily News
Musk said development of the upgraded human-rated version of Dragon will cost between $800 million and $1 billion. About half of they money has already been spent.

"For the spacecraft itself, it's going to be something on the order of 70 to 90 percent NASA-funded," Musk said. "The rocket is not NASA-funded at all."

NASA faces a decision late this summer whether to pour its money into one spacecraft team, or spread its funding among two companies to maintain competition, which officials say would keep costs down.

"If we don't win the NASA contract, we'll do our best to continue the development and still make it happen," Musk said Thursday.

The House of Representatives committee charged with NASA oversight wants to force NASA to pick one company, saying it will ensure U.S. crew flights begin as soon as possible, ending NASA's reliance on Russian Soyuz vehicles to transport astronauts to the space station.

According to Musk, the Dragon Version 2 could be ready for an unmanned orbital test flight by the end of 2015. A piloted demonstration mission to the space station would follow in 2016 before NASA gives its blessing for operational crews to climb aboard the capsule.

"From a SpaceX standpoint, we actually expect to be ready to transport crew in 2016, about a year sooner than NASA needs it," Musk said. "NASA wants to be a little cautious in the timing of things, so they don't want to count on us being there in 2016, but we feel fairly confident that the vehicle will be ready in two years."

NASA officials say a commercial crew spacecraft can be operational by the end of 2017 under the program's current budget.

Musk unveiled the new version of Dragon in a presentation at the company's headquarters, highlighting the capsule's futuristic appearance and innovative technologies in a pep rally-like atmosphere.

A curtain dropped to reveal the capsule on SpaceX's factory floor as a fog machine and multi-colored lights cast a dramatic glow on the spacecraft.

Musk described the capsule as "flight hardware" in response to questions from reporters but officials did not say if or when any of the vehicle presented Thursday would fly.

Artist's concept of a Dragon spacecraft with crew approaching the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX
Eight SuperDraco rocket engines mounted around the circumference of the spacecraft will slow down the capsule during descent, guiding it to a gentle touchdown on a landing pad. The cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft parachutes into the Pacific Ocean.

"The biggest technology change for Dragon Version 2 was the SuperDraco engine," Musk said. "That has to produce a tremendous amount of thrust and yet be very light. It's also got to throttle over a wide range, so it's got to be able to go from a very low throttle range to a very high throttle range and react very quickly. It was quite a tricky thing to develop."

SpaceX announced Tuesday it has finished qualification testing of the SuperDraco engine ahead of a planned pad abort test of the Dragon spacecraft later this year.

The SuperDraco thrusters also function as a launch abort system, capable of whisking an astronaut crew to safety if a rocket exploded after liftoff.

Each SuperDraco engine can generate up to 16,000 pounds of thrust, but their power can be adjusted during descent to control the capsule's trajectory and velocity. Musk said the engine's thrust chamber is made by 3D printers in what SpaceX claims is an unprecedented use of the simplified, low-cost manufacturing technology in spaceflight.

"If you can 3D print something with sufficiently good material properties, then that's the easiest way to do it, certainly in a rocket company," Musk said.

"In the case of the SuperDraco engine, we didn't in the very beginning anticipate being able to 3D print it," Musk said. "We tried all sorts of normal methods of developing the engine, and to be honest, those did not have great success. We said, let's give 3D printing a try and see if it works. Initially, we thought of it as sort of a Hail Mary, and it actually turned out to work super well."

Musk said the human-rated Dragon will still carry parachutes in case of a propulsion system failure during re-entry.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.