Illustration of a crewed version of Dragon in orbit. Image credit: SpaceX

Nov 28, 2014 Dragon V2 crew vehicle is key driver for Musk's SpaceX ambitions

Sen—New space pioneer SpaceX aims to go where no other private company has gone before—transporting humans on privately developed spaceships first to low Earth in the next few years and eventually into deep space for breathtaking voyages to Mars in the next decade or two.

SpaceX CEO and billionaire founder Elon Musk has often said his long term goal is to populate and colonize the Red Planet in his lifetime and transform humanity into a two planet species to ensure our survival.

Exactly how and when that noble and mighty feat happens remains to be seen. The costs are high and the challenges are immense. 

But there is no mistaking Musk’s zeal and vision in tackling difficult technical tasks that others shun, radically cutting the cost of access to space for both cargo and crew and accomplishing big goals to further humanity’s reach for the stars.

It all began a decade ago when Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, was founded in 2002 by PayPal entrepreneur Musk. SpaceX is headquartered in Hawthorne, California.

Musk and SpaceX started with the development of his firms Falcon family of rockets and then the Dragon cargo resupply freighters to the International Space Station (ISS), using critically needed seed money from NASA that was absolutely essential to getting the ball rolling and moving it to fruition.

Falcon 1 led to the Falcon 9, and now in its latest incarnation the next generation Falcon 9 v1.1. It  stands about 224 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter and generates about 1.5 million pounds of thrust from the octoweb array of nine Merlin 1D engines. The original Falcon 9 booster was about 130 feet tall.

Thus far the Falcon 9 boosters have only launched unmanned cargo, including SpaceX’s internally designed and developed Dragon cargo vehicles.

Under the Commercial Resupply Services agreement with NASA, SpaceX was awarded a $1.6 Billion contract to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016. 

To date, four operational resupply missions have been launched to the station. The fifth flight is set to blast off on Dec. 16, 2014 atop a Falcon 9 v1.1 on the SpaceX CRS-5 mission to the ISS.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket awaits launch with the Dragon resupply ship on the CRS-4 mission during September 2014 from Cape Canaveral, Fl. Image credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The next step for Musk and NASA is transforming SpaceX’s rockets and spacecraft into human rated vehicles and restoring an indigenous US capability to launch its astronauts to space and end the current sole source reliance on Russia’s Soyuz capsules for human spaceflight.

Years of hard work by thousands of SpaceX employees finally paid off on Sept. 16, 2014, when NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that SpaceX and Boeing had both won the high stakes competition to manufacture something the world has never seen before—private ‘space taxis’ designed to ferry humans to low Earth orbit and the space station.

“We need to have our own capability to get our crews to space. Commercial crew is really, really, really important,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told me in an exclusive interview. 

Although Boeing won the largest contact valued at $4.2 Billion to manufacture their CST-100 ‘astronaut spaceliner’ under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) effort, SpaceX also came out rather well.

SpaceX was awarded a contract worth $2.6 Billion to manufacture their Dragon V2 crew vehicle.

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The interior of SpaceX's Dragon V2 as revealed in May 2014. Image credit: SpaceX

The V2 will be a vastly more capable follow up to SpaceX’s cargo Dragon, building on the experience gained from already flying several critical and successful resupply missions to the station. 

Under the CCtCAP contract, SpaceX will fly between one and six manned missions starting before the end of 2017. Boeing told Sen that they are planning the first manned launch by the end of summer 2017 with a two person crew.

Musk hopes to fly a manned Dragon before the end of 2016. Only time will tell and the whole effort has taken much longer than planned. But it’s steadfastly moving forward with badly needed government funding thanks to NASA’s confidence in SpaceX by signing the commercial crew contract.

“The Dragon V2 is a 21st century spacecraft,” Musk announced earlier this year in the run up to the contract awards.  “As it should be.”

“We wanted to take a big step in spacecraft technology. It is a big leap forward in technology and takes things to the next level. An important characteristic of that is its ability to land anywhere on land, propulsively.”

“It can land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter. I think that’s what a spaceship should be able to do.”

But safety is paramount. And that’s even more important in light of the catastrophic failure of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter when it exploded just seconds after liftoff on Oct. 28, 2014, and which I personally witnessed from the Press Viewing Site. 

There was no escape system for the Cygnus and it was mercilessly incinerated. But the inclusion of a launch abort system (LAS) to save the astronauts lives in a split second is an absolutely essential NASA requirement for both SpaceX and Boeing.

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SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk discusses his plans for SpaceX rockets and human spaceflight with the media including Sen at a gathering on the Florida space coast. Image credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com 

Musk told me in an earlier interview that SpaceX had planned two tests of the Dragon V2’s LAS in 2014.

“Assuming all goes well, we expect to conduct [up to] two Dragon abort tests in 2014,” Musk told me.

Neither of these critically important abort tests has taken place yet. But hopefully at least the first one involving a pad abort test at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral launch site will occur sometime in early 2015.

So tremendous progress has been made in eventually ending the gap in America’s ability to launch humans to orbit that has now stretched more than three years since the forced end of the NASA shuttle program in July 2011. But much hard work remains to ensure both safety and success, and we’ll continue to follow it here every step of way!

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