May 31, 2014 – This week SpaceX showed off their second generation Dragon spacecraft. It’s still a conical-shaped capsule vaguely resembling that of the Apollo capsule, but unlike its Dragon Version 1 predecessor it now is capable of powered descent and is fully reusable.
Earlier in the week I wrote about the testing of the 3-D printed SuperDraco engines that are on board Version 2. These engines are made from a nickel-chromium super alloy and number eight in total. Built into the side walls of the spacecraft they provide 120,000 pounds of thrust in total and make it possible not only to provide a greater margin of safety during all phases of a launch but also the ability to land back on Earth in pinpoint fashion using propulsion, not parachutes. The parachutes still remain as a redundant safety factor on reentry but they are only deployed in the event sensors detect problems with the SuperDracos during descent. Having said that, the spacecraft engines provide a margine of redundancy so that it can land comfortably even if half the engines are operational.
Version 2 has seating capacity and environmental life support to accommodate seven. So although the current Dragon is being used as a cargo hauler the new version has multiple usages (human and cargo) combined with reusability. Reusability means Version 2 sports an upgraded heat shield described by Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Designer at SpaceX, as their Version 3 with less ablation and therefore capable of being sent back into space repeatedly.
Version 2 has a new docking adapter that will allow to mate directly with the International Space Station (ISS) and future commercial space stations such as the planned Bigelow inflatable. Combine that with landing legs and engines that can be refueled numerous times and you have a spacecraft that will dramatically reduce the cost of going to space. And where it can go is not limited to near-Earth orbit. With SpaceX and its Falcon Heavy rocket in the works, Dragon Version 2 can return to the Moon or even be used for an extended voyage and landing on Mars.
At the unveiling of Dragon Version 2, Peter Diamandis, author of Abundance – The Future is Better Than You Think, the man behind Indiegogo and the XPrize Foundation, in an e-mail this week describes the spacecraft in these words,
“For any of you who are fellow space cadets, this is the first spaceship that is truly beautiful, from its leather seats (which remind me of my Tesla) to its gleaming metallic interior and large flat screen displays. This is the first spaceship to feel straight out of a sci-fi movie. What the SpaceX team has accomplished is nothing short of miraculous.”
In the images below, the middle two animated, you can see some of the key changes that make Version 2 of the Dragon a truly 21st century spaceship. On the left is Version 2 at the unveiling. The two center images show the new docking mechanism and the SuperDraco Thrusters in power descent. The images on the right show the configuration of the crew capsule and controls as well as a closeup of one of the landing struts.
The old space race is dead. The new one involves commercial operators competing with national space programs. And no one seems to do it better than SpaceX. Diamandis sums it all up in describing what Musk and SpaceX have accomplished.
“Elon had no experience in the rocket business when he started 12 years ago. Yes, of course he’s a genius, but beyond that, he has surpassed what NASA, Lockheed, Boeing, Russia and China are able to do in space…Fasten your seatbelts – it will be a wild ride ahead.”