I had a chance to attend the unveiling of SpaceX’s crewed Dragon spacecraft last night, and it was damned impressive. Imagine a spacecraft capable of:
- Carrying seven people in a roomy cabin instead of the three astronauts who now fly in a cramped Soyuz capsule
- Touching down softly on land anywhere in the world with the precision of a helicopter (“That’s the way a 21st century spacecraft should land,” said SpaceX Founder Elon Musk)
- Powered by SuperDrago engines with 3D printed combustion chambers that are 160 times more powerful than the Draco engines on the current Dragon spacecraft
- Capable of being reused up to 10 times without having to replace the heat shield
- Ready to carry crews to the International Space Station on a commercial basis by the end of 2016, a full year ahead of NASA’s current schedule
- Costing only $140 million per launch or $20 million per person, well below the current $70 million per seat the Russians are charging for Soyuz.
Sounds pretty good, huh?
Musk and his team made an excellent case for additional funding in the next round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which is set to make its next round of awards in August. The Southern California company is competing with Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation.
If there was one discordant note in the festivities last night, it was when Musk mentioned how much money it would take to build and certify Dragon Version 2 for NASA service. That would cost about $1 billion dollars over two years, Musk told reporters.
That’s not a huge amount of money, but it’s not that inexpensive, either. It’s not clear whether Musk meant that’s what NASA would have to contribute, or whether it is the total expense with cost sharing between SpaceX and the space agency. The commercial crew program includes cost sharing between both parties as is done under the commercial crew program.
The plan would be to launch a Dragon on a test flight, hopefully by the end of 2015. That would be followed by a crewed mission to the International Space Station with a SpaceX flight crew by the middle of 2016. If all goes well, then SpaceX would begin ferrying crews to the station by the end of that year.
SpaceX is focused on developing fully reusable systems capable of radically bringing down the cost of space travel. In addition to the reusable Dragon, the company is attempting to recover both stages of its Falcon 9 rocket for rapid and inexpensive reuse.