Friday, 30 May 2014

SpaceX reveal the Dragon V2 Manned Spacecraft.

SpaceX's new Dragon V2 Spacecraft, a seven person capsule that may soon be taking astronauts to the International Space Station. It was revealed to the public on the 29th of June. Photo Credit: SpaceX

On Thursday evening (well, Friday morning here)  SpaceX founder Elon Musk took to the stage to reveal the Dragon Version 2, SpaceX's entry to the race to build the next manned spacecraft for Nasa.

In my not so humble opinion, it looks amazing.

The design is very different from the current, cargo carrying version of the Dragon. Instead of the blunt-nosed capsule based on traditional spacecraft designs, the Dragon V2 is a sleek cone, flanked by pairs of SuperDraco rocket engines.

It's these (3D printed!) engines that are the Dragon V2's key innovation. They are powerful enough to act as a launch escape system, blasting the capsule away from an exploding rocket in the event of an accident. But their primary purpose is to allow the Dragon V2 to do what no space craft has done before: Land propulsively, coming down onto a landing pad using rockets, without the use of a parachute.

 This will hopefully allow it, along with its Falcon 9 launch rocket, to be rapidly reused, massively reducing the prohibitive cost of spaceflight. SpaceX have released an animation showing just how this would work:

The video shows my favourite bit of the new spacecraft: The trunk, the disposable rear section holding cargo and the Dragon's solar panels, has rocket fins! Combined with the propulsive landing, this makes the spacecraft remind me of old-school, 1930s Flash Gorden-esque sci-fi.

The interior of the Dragon V2, with seats for seven astronauts, is incredibly futuristic.Photo credit: SpaceX
The interior, however, is anything but old fashioned. With it's spacious, seven seat design and touch screen controls, the Dragon's insides are radically different from anything thats gone before. My first reaction to it was "that can't be real"- it's just nothing like the cluttered, button heavy Soyuz or Space Shuttle cockpits. But this is the first time we've seen a new manned spacecraft for decades, so we really should expect not to recognize it. It will be interesting to see what the interiors of spacecraft built by SpaceX's competetors look like. Indeed, the glimpses Boeing have released into their CST 100 craft look similarly futuristic.

The Dragon V2 certainly looks beautiful, but will it work? Only time will tell. Pending Nasa funding, SpaceX plan to start flying it into orbit next year, with its first manned flight penciled in for 2016. If all goes well, we could soon finally have a true twenty-first century spacecraft.

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