SpaceX this week made a major announcement at its headquarters in Hawthorne, unveiling the Dragon V2 manned spacecraft. A successor to the company’s existing Dragon capsule, the V2 is capable of carrying up to seven crew members in addition to cargo, and is already being planned to shuttle astronauts up to the International Space Station (ISS). Eventually, the V2 could pave the way for trips far beyond the ISS, maybe even to Mars—an idea SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk is particularly fond of.
The Dragon V2 was built in partnership with NASA, and has been in development for several years now. The program is meant to pick up the hole left when the U.S. closed down its own shuttle program back in 2011; right now, NASA relies on Russia to taxi astronauts to and from the ISS. Each trip, according to ArsTechnica, costs NASA around $71 million per astronaut, which is obviously a lofty sum.
Musk estimates that its Dragon V2 will be able to shuttle astronauts to the ISS at a cost of $20 million per head, significantly less than Russia charges. Depending on how many flights SpaceX is able to perform, Musk said that cost could even get down into the single-digit-million figure, giving NASA and SpaceX the opportunity to use those funds in other programs and future flights. The goal right now is to have the V2 ready to shuttle people by 2017, but Musk actually believes it’ll be good to go by 2016.
“We feel fairly confident that we’ll be ready in two years,” Musk said.
What makes the V2 particularly important is that SpaceX will be able to reuse it after missions—or at least that’s the plan. Musk said the V2 should be able to withstand at least ten flights without needing any repairs or refurbishments. That’s hugely cost-effective, and means a new V2 doesn’t need to be rebuilt every time it makes the trip up to the ISS and back. (My mind is blown we can even shuttle people space and come back at all.)
Even after ten flights, Musk believes the only significant repair will be to replace the V2’s heat shield, but otherwise it should be built to last. SpaceX is set to use a variant of NASA’s Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator, or PICA-X 3, for the shield, with upcoming versions expected to withstand more than ten flights before needing repairs. Another crucial part of the whole operation is something SpaceX dubbed SuperDraco engines, which is rated as 200 times more powerful than the Draco powering the current Dragon spacecraft.
“We want to get to the point where we have thousands of space flight per year, and ultimately where we have a base on the moon and we have (bases) for other civilizations, that’s where things need to go in the long term,” Musk said.
With Dragon V2, SpaceX is quickly evolving into one of our biggest hopes for getting off this planet—and one day possibly colonizing Mars, which might be closer than we think.
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