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SpaceX Unveiled Its Reusable Dragon V2 Spacecraft, But Questions Still Abound

The Dragon V2 has an impressive new landing system—but how it will work in practice remains unclear.
May 30, 2014, 2:15pm
Image: SpaceX

Last night, SpaceX unveiled its next generation spacecraft, the Dragon V2, which will be the company's first to carry men into space. The unveiling was elegant and dramatic, and left a lot of questions unanswered.

The scene looked like a late night talk show with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk acting as host. He walked out before a cheering crowd onto an all-white stage and stood in front of a tall white sheet hiding the spacecraft for the big reveal.

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Overhead hung the first Dragon to fly in space, showing the charred marks of its return through the Earth’s atmosphere. Musk took the audience and the 30,000 or so viewers watching the livestream through the main features of the Dragon V1, the spacecraft we’ve seen fly to the International Space Station four times. Musk began the event by highlighting some of the features of the Dragon V1, focusing on its landing system. Like the Apollo-era spacecraft, the Dragon has always used parachutes to slow its descent to a splashdown landing in the Pacific Ocean. The spacecraft was, said Musk, an excellent proof-of-concept vehicle.

But the time for proof-of-concept spacecraft is over, he said. It’s time for a true 21st century spacecraft, and the curtain fell to reveal the V2.

The biggest change from the Dragon V1 to the V2, aside from its man-rated life support system that can carry up to seven astronauts, is its landing system. Musk claims the Dragon V2 will be able land propulsively almost anywhere on Earth—or another planet—with the precision of a helicopter. As described, the V2 will be able to land gently under its own thruster power, much like spacecraft of 70s sci-fi.

The whole event, if you'd like to kick back and enjoy the big reveal.

During the descent, when the spacecraft if a few miles above the ground, test engines will check the massive Super Draco thrusters, a larger version of the thrusters the Dragon uses to maneuver in orbit. If the engines detect any problems, the landing thrusters wont fire; parachutes will deploy and the spacecraft will default to a splashdown landing instead. If there aren’t any problems, the thrusters will fire. They’re mounted in pairs to provide redundancy in the final landing stages, so one of a pair fails, its mate will pick up the slack and fire with more power.

Update: Robert Pearlman told me some details that weren't announced publicly at the event: First, the V2 could launch on its first uncrewed test flight as soon as late 2015 and see the first manned mission as soon as mid-2016. As for onboard fuel, there’s one store for both launch abort and propulsive landing, so if the launch isn’t aborted the crew can try for the propulsive landing. If the launch is aborted, they will land by parachute. 

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Just in case you wanted to update the article; SpaceX deliberately didn’t share details with the wider media, so that’s fun. You can give a h/t to Robert Pearlman for the details.

The V2 is also designed to be reusable, and that’s where the beauty of a precision propulsive landing system comes in. Between missions, said Musk, SpaceX will simply have to refuel the spacecraft. Reusability and a quick turn around time will finally make access to spaceflight simpler and cost effective.

Musk then took us inside the Dragon V2 to show off the clean, minimalist interior that features a fold-down touchscreen instrument panel with a centre panel of manual button corresponding to critical systems.

A screengrab from the livestream of the Dragon V2's control panel.

After a quick look at some of the Dragon V2 hardware—a helium tank and thruster—the unveiling ended. It lasted about 16 minutes. There were no questions from the audience, and no additional comments from Musk.

The showy unveiling didn’t answer many questions. One question is over the promise of the V2’s reusability to make access to space routine and cost effective, a promise we’ve heard before from NASA when it unveiled the Space Shuttle in 1972. Musk didn’t offer any indication of how many launches per year the Dragon V2 will be able to make in the name of making spaceflight routine. SpaceX’s launch manifest only lists purchased launches through 2018, and doesn't include the V2 spacecraft.

Musk also didn’t offer many details on how the spacecraft will land propulsively. Fuel, we know, is heavy, and carrying fuel off the Earth to use for touchdown landings can drastically increase launch weight. Lowering overall launch weight by decreasing the amount of fuel needed to land on the Moon was a main factor behind NASA’s decision to use a small lunar landing module rather than land an entire spacecraft on the lunar surface. How exactly SpaceX will get around the increased launch weight of a full propulsive landing wasn’t made entirely clear.

Hopefully more details will come before long, because the spacecraft looks promising and it will incredibly exciting if it can deliver on its promises. But one thing is sure in the mean time: Elon Musk knows how to put on a show.