According to a Friday story on Fox News, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has unveiled the DragonV2. This is the version of the Dragon that is proposed to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The cargo version of the Dragon has already made a number of successful flights to and from the ISS. The development of the spacecraft was largely funded by NASA, but it will be operated by SpaceX should it be chosen to service the space station.
By all accounts the new Dragon is the state of the art in human space travel. It is a cone headed capsule that has landing legs that can pop out retro rockets that can fire, allowing it to land vertically on land anywhere in the world. It has advanced computer systems and avionics. It seats seven people in an interior that contains large windows the better to view the wonders of space through. Heat shields and redundant parachutes are also included to ensure a safe landing.
Best of all, it is totally reusable and can be refurbished and relaunched quickly, according to Musk. Reusability and rapid turnaround are considered the key to making spaceflight affordable. Those were the goals of the space shuttle which the venerable spacecraft was unable to quite achieve.
Plans are to test the Dragon V2 uncrewed sometime in 2015. The first piloted test flights will take place in 2016. If all goes well and NASA approves, the first commercial run of the crewed Dragon will fly to the International Space Station in 2017.
The commercial crew program under which the Dragon V2 was developed has proven to be controversial. Congress, miffed over what it saw as the arbitrary way the President Obama scrapped the Constellation return to the moon program and doubled down on government funded commercial space, has never fully funded the crewed Dragon and its competitors like the Boeing CST-100. However, with Russian threats to pull out of the ISS partnership, that is likely to change.
In the meantime, NASA’s development of its own spacecraft, the Orion, is proceeding apace, Unlike the Dragon, which will be confined to low Earth orbit, the Orion is designed for deep space exploration to destinations such as the moon, asteroids, and Mars. The first flight of a prototype Orion is scheduled for later in 2014.