SpaceX unveiled the manned version of its Dragon spacecraft

Elon Musk near the SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft (Photo courtesy SpaceX. All rights reserved)
Elon Musk near the SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft (Photo courtesy SpaceX. All rights reserved)

Yesterday, Elon Musk, the owner of SpaceX, unveiled to the world the Dragon V2 spacecraft. This is the version of Dragon built to carry people into space and bring them back to Earth. It can carry up to seven people and includes innovative solutions while keeping the focus on reliability and safety.

The cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft reached the International Space Station for the first time almost exactly two years ago. Since then, SpaceX has accomplished three official missions on behalf of NASA improving the Dragon in time and collecting data that were very useful for the development of the manned version.

After the conclusion of the Space Shuttle program, the USA relied on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and for their return to Earth. The cost required by the Russians reached $70 million for astronaut and the recent tensions between USA and Russia caused an increase in criticisms about the lack of an American manned spacecraft.

Actually, NASA created the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) a few years ago with the aim of helping the development of commercial space transportation. Within it, NASA created the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev), initiative of which the third phase was called Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap). In August 2012, SpaceX was officially selected as a partner for the development of a manned spacecraft.

Yesterday Elon Musk has shown the world the Dragon V2 spacecraft. Apparently it’s nothing exceptional so don’t expect the Enterprise. In fact, SpaceX engineers implemented solutions different from the spacecraft so far developed. The purpose is to transport people in safety and at the same time reuse the Dragon up to ten times without the need for major maintenance.

The Dragon V2 is very different from its cargo version. It’s not just the presence of all the systems needed for the crew but there are other fundamental differences, starting with the ability to actually land on ground instead of splashing down in the sea like the Dragon cargo.

The Dragon V2 spacecraft is equipped with 8 SuperDraco engines, new rocket engines announced by SpaceX a few days ago. They have the purpose of allowing the Dragon V2 to perform a controlled landing that according to Elon Musk will have the precision of a helicopter. SpaceX is working hard on controlled landing systems in order to re-use spacecraft and also the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Another difference from the cargo version of the Dragon will be in the docking system. The Dragon cargo is captured by the robotic arm Canadarm2, which then guides it to a docking hatch of the International Space Station. The Dragon V2, equipped with a docking system hidden in its “nose”, which will open on arrival, can dock directly, through an automated system or controlled by the pilot.

According to plans, the Dragon V2 will make the first test flight at the end of 2015, without a crew, and the first manned mission as early as middle 2016. If the tests are successful, it should enter into service to transport people to the International Space Station in 2017. It would be another triumph for SpaceX.

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