A $2.6 billion contract has been awarded to SpaceX to fly astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) using its Dragon capsule. The Dragon capsule is currently in use alongside the Falcon 9 launch vehicle in delivering supplies to the ISS, however this contract provides financing toward on-going development of a crewed edition of the Dragon spacecraft – Dragon V2.
The new contract comes under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX will not be the sole contractors taking astronauts into space though. Boeing were awarded a $4.2 billion contract, and will be flying astronauts in their CST-100 capsule. The NASA agreement includes a certification process to ensure flight safety and validity. Following this, there will be at least two and as many as six manned flights to the ISS from both Boeing and SpaceX. The first crewed flight for the Dragon V2 from SpaceX is expected mid-2015.
The Dragon V2 capsule, which was formally unveiled in May 2014, can accommodate up to seven crew members and has been designed with reusability in mind. Unlike its predecessor, V1, which adopts a conventional water landing, the Dragon V2 can land propulsively almost anywhere on Earth. Crucially, soft-landings are afforded by Dragon V2’s engines: 16,000 pounds of thrust are put out by each of its eight SuperDraco engines which can be restarted multiple times to decelerate the capsule and precisely control its decent before landing. Designed and manufactured by SpaceX, these engines are actually produced using a 3D metal printer with high strength alloys – the first engines ever to be wholly manufactured in this manner. The craft does retain failsafe technologies though; should its propulsion landing system fail parachutes may be deployed. The design, much like its launch and delivery vehicle, Falcon 9R, ensures rapid reusability of the Dragon V2 in ways that far surpass Boeing’s CST-100.
The contracts together with the research and technology they support are especially important because they bring NASA far greater autonomy in spaceflight. Specifically, the United States will be able to fly crewed missions without governmental or industrial support from foreign nations, notably Russia, on whom NASA is currently dependent.
“From day one, the Obama Administration made clear that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space … today we are one step closer to launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017” – Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator.
The Dragon V1 capsule is currently contracted and in use by NASA to resupply the ISS, under a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, awarded in 2008 – regular cargo missions have been flying since October 2012. The capsule was ground-breaking in its own rights: during its maiden flight in December 2010, it became the first commercially-built and operated spacecraft to be recovered successfully from orbit. Two years later, Dragon was the first private spacecraft in history to dock with the ISS. Most recently, on the morning of Sunday 21 September in fact, SpaceX successfully launched its fourth CRS mission with a Dragon capsule taking up over 5000 pounds of equipment to the ISS – docking with ISS is expected on Tuesday 23 September, with a deorbit and water landing scheduled for mid-October.