Even as another crew docked with the International Space Station on Wednesday, ambitious upstart SpaceX prepared to unveil what it hopes will become the astronauts’ new ride: the Dragon V2, its latest version of the crew capsule. The first version capable of carrying people hasn’t even flown yet (the cargo version has launched four times), but its successor is already being built.
The latest version takes a major leap in the way it lands. In contrast to previous capsules, which use parachutes to slow down, Dragon V2 will fire retrorockets and land gently, and, for the first time, have the ability to choose exactly where it touches down.
“We wanted to create something that was really a step change in technology,” said SpaceX founder Elon Musk. “You’ll be able to land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter, which is something I think a modern spacecraft should be able to do.”
Among the other improvements are better “heat shield” coatings, which burn off as the Dragon reenters the atmosphere, much like car hoods are designed to crumple to safely absorb energy. And this capsule will be able to dock itself, without needing the ISS to grab ahold and guide it in.
Well, NASA hasn’t had its own ride into space since the space shuttle, which was retired in 2011. The shuttle was an impressive and hugely capable machine, but it was also expensive, at around $1.7 billion to build and $450 million for each launch. They had to go, but it left NASA without a way to send cargo and astronauts to the ISS. Since then, NASA has had to buy seats aboard the Russian Soyuz for up to $75 million a pop—cheaper than the shuttle, but still very expensive, setting aside political concerns.
So NASA has been funding U.S.-based companies to develop cargo and crew vehicles. The cargo vehicles, SpaceX’s Dragon and Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus, have both flown successfully, though only Dragon can return experiments to Earth. The crew vehicles are another matter. NASA is funding three competitors to build crew vehicles: SpaceX’s crewed Dragon, Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, and the exotic-looking Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser lifting body. Several competitors have been whittled out of the competition, and an upcoming round will probably narrow down to a single provider.
With the new Dragon V2 unveiled last night, SpaceX shows that it intends to win.
SpaceX is akin to a startup, throwing what has largely been a government-centered launch industry into disarray—and rattling the cages of more established companies in the process. What was a simmering hostility between SpaceX and more established companies, tempered by mutual respect, has recently erupted into open warfare.
The unquestioned behemoth of U.S. spaceflight is United Launch Alliance. ULA is a joint venture of two companies, Lockheed Martin (which builds the Atlas V) and Boeing (building Delta IV), forced together after huge rises in costs and the collapse of commercial telecommunications satellite markets virtually ensured the end of one rocket or the other. To keep some competition, the government had both companies merge into a single entity, which holds a virtual monopoly on the lucrative U.S. government launches but virtually zero commercial market share.
Enter Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002 with the stated goals of making spaceflight cheap and establishing a colony on Mars. Many other companies have tried and failed to make spaceflight cheaper, and as for Mars, well, nobody has even come close. Big companies with decades of experience in spaceflight looked upon SpaceX as a well-meaning but misguided (and probably doomed) little startup, just the latest in a long succession.
So imagine the surprise when SpaceX launched its single-engine Falcon 1 into space (following three catastrophic failures) and announced it would not only combine nine of those engines to build a bigger rocket, the Falcon 9, it would construct reusable cargo and crew Dragon capsules to launch atop it. Not only that, but they would build it to launch satellites cheaper than anyone else, bringing commercial launches back to the States, and by 2010 they’d done that, too.
Then SpaceX said it would put three Falcon 9s together to become the Falcon Heavy, lifting far heavier loads than anything flying today, and sell that cheaply enough to be commercially competitive, and they have (the first launch is scheduled next year). They’ve built new versions of the Falcon 9 and its engines at breathtaking speed, then launched them successfully.
SpaceX has more recently announced its intent to build a reusable rocket, the holy grail of rocketry, to go with its reusable capsules and potentially to lower the cost of launch dramatically (proof-of-concept systems are in flight testing). Another rocket, the utterly massive Mars Colony Transporter, is on the drawing boards (and new engines to power it). ULA simply cannot keep up.
SpaceX has always said it would pursue NASA and U.S. military missions, so for a few years ULA has been positioning itself for competition. It’s taken impressive cost-cutting measures, including a new second-stage engine and structuring bulk buys instead of the usual one-at-a-time approach. The proposed bulk buy of rockets from ULA is not only a cost reduction, it is a savvy business move—each rocket is a satellite that SpaceX can’t get its hands on. ULA cannot compete with SpaceX on price—or come anywhere near it, for that matter—but it has a near-perfect launch record, and payloads launched include all of the “failure is not an option” stuff, like spy satellites and NASA’s Mars rovers.
Musk was never one to mince words, but has recently unleashed aggressive broadsides on ULA. First came the congressional testimonies, when Musk and ULA’s Michael Gass had the chance to put pointed questions to one another in writing, receiving acid-laced responses. Next came a SpaceX lawsuit against the government, accusing it of not allowing open competition by going through with ULA’s bulk buy. Then there was the injunction against ULA (since lifted), preventing it from buying the Russian RD-180 engines required by the Atlas V. Most recently, in a series of tweets, Musk has accused ULA of outright corruption after it hired a former Air Force acquisition official. Though typical of the rotating door between industry and government, Musk is making very public an accusation occasionally levied quietly behind closed doors by sore losers.
SpaceX certainly has its problems—it has never launched on time, for one thing, and is running several years behind schedule—but its ambition is virtually boundless and its pace of achievement impressive. The Dragon V2 is just the latest in a rapid series of unveilings, and though Musk’s main goal is to die on Mars (“Hopefully not upon impact”). He is in the process upending the space business as usual.