SpaceX Just Unveiled Its Brand New Capsule For Taking Astronauts To Space

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled the next version of its Dragon spacecraft — Dragon V2 — on Thursday night from the company’s manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, California.

Here’s the moment of the big reveal:

And here’s what the capsule looks like without all the flashing lights. It’s kind of gumdrop-shaped:

The Dragon V2 is designed to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. It’s an upgraded version of the Dragon cargo ship, which has successfully delivered food and other supplies to the space station three times since 2012.

Dragon landingSpaceXAn animation of Dragon V2 landing back on Earth.

NASA has been entirely dependent on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to get American astronauts to and from the space station since the agency retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011. This comes at a cost of around $US71 million per person. The need for private “space taxis” has become even more crucial as tensions between the U.S. and Russia continue to run high over the crisis in Ukraine.

The new capsule is a big leap forward in technology. Dragon will be “able to land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter” and is “designed to be fully reusable,” Musk said at the media event.

The interior of the spacecraft is sleek. It seems very minimal with clean lines. Musk is facing the control panel in the photo below. At the center of the panel are all the manual buttons. These have critical functions that would be used in emergency situations, Musk said.

Dragon V2 fits seven astronauts, whereas the Soyuz capsules only seat three. Here’s a closer look at the detail of one of the seats.

All of that’s cool, but Musk said one of the biggest changes to Dragon V2 is the introduction of the SuperDraco thruster engines. These are abort engines that would be used to separate the manned capsule from the carrier rocket in an emergency during launch or the ascent. Traditionally these escape systems have jettisoned after the first few minutes of launch, but the SuperDraco thrusters are built into the walls of the new capsule.

SuperDraco thrustersSpaceXThe SuperDraco thrusters during a test firing last month.

Space X is one of three companies that has received funding through NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability program to develop a space taxi with the goal of having one ready to fly crew to the space station by 2017.

Other competitors include Boeing, which recently released interior renderings for its manned space capsule named CST-100, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation, which has been designing the Dream Chaser. SpaceX may have a leg up on the competition since they have already successfully pitched and won a cargo contract with NASA for the original Dragon.

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