Thursday May 28th saw SpaceX, the private sector space company founded by Elon Musk, unveil the next iteration of their Dragon space vehicle, the Dragon V2.
Dragon has been in operation in an unmanned mode since 2010, and was the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to be recovered successfully from orbit. In May 2012, it commenced uncrewed resupply flights to the International Space Station (which I covered here) as a part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) development programme.
Dragon V2 (which had previously been called Dragon Rider by the company) is a natural progression of the Dragon spacecraft, and while always in Spacex’s plans, having been originally announced in 2006, it has been part-funded by two US Government contracts, the Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev 2) in April 2011, and the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) in August 2012, both of which are focused on developing crewed vehicles capable of supporting the International Space Station (ISS) and of operating in low Earth orbit (LEO).
Dragon V2 is capable of carrying up to seven crew, or a combination of crew and cargo. The vehicle is intended to be reusable, and capable of landing almost anywhere in the world using propulsive-landing via its eight SuperDraco engines (Dragon 1 is only capable of making splash downs). However, Dragon V2 will retain a parachute descent system for use as a back-up, although it can still make a safe touch-down even if two of its eight descent engines fail. Also, unlike Dragon 1, which makes a close rendezvous with the ISS before being grabbed by one of the station’s robot arms and manoeuvred into a docking position, Dragon 2 will be able to undertake fully automated dockings with the ISS.
Nor does it end there. There are some ambitious plans for Dragon. The head shield, for example, is already capable of protecting the vehicle during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere at velocities equivalent to those of a vehicle returning from the Moon or from Mars – and SpaceX has been working with NASA Ames Centre, California, on a conceptual uncrewed Mars mission evolution called Red Dragon.
Potentially funded under NASA’s Discovery mission programme, Red Dragon, if given the green light, would provide a cost-effective means for NASA to undertake a sample return mission to Mars, allowing up to two tonnes of samples to be returned to Earth for detailed investigation and analysis in 2022, ahead of NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.
Other have even more ambitious plans for Dragon and Mars. Dutch-based Mars One plans to kick-start a permanent, self-sufficient human colony on Mars from the mid-2020, with crews leaving Earth on a one-way trip every two years. According to the Mars One website, they hope to be able to use the Dragon vehicle and its associated Falcon 9 heavy launch vehicle also constructed by SpaceX, although there has been no public confirmation as to whether formal discussions with SpaceX have taken place.
Such plans aside, however, the first actual crewed mission for Dragon V2 is unlikely to occur prior to 2016. The next major milestone for the vehicle is a launchpad abort test, scheduled for later in 2014.
This will see the vehicle positioned at pad height and then launched to simulate an emergency in which the crew must escape their launch vehicle. After this, in 2015, there should be a high altitude abort test at Max Q, the period in the vehicle’s ascent when it is exposed to the maximum dynamic pressure. Both tests will feature the use of the vehicle’s SuperDraco engines, which form a part of the escape system as well as powering the craft during descent and landing. Capable of multiple re-starts and what is called “deep throttling”, the engines are themselves unique – the first ever fully printed rocket engines ever flown, produced by a direct metal laser sintering process.
If both of these tests are successful then it is conceivable that Dragon V2 could make an initial uncrewed orbital flight towards the end of 2015, and its first crewed flight in 2016.