HAWTHORNE, Calif. - With a showman's flair for the dramatic, electric car builder and rocket designer Elon Musk unveiled a futuristic space capsule Thursday; a sleek reusable ferry craft that could carry astronauts to the International Space Station and bring them home to a pinpoint, rocket-powered landing.
"You'll be able to land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter, which is, I think, something a modern spaceship should be able to do, " Musk told a throng of reporters and invited guests.
"It will be capable of carrying seven people, seven astronauts, for several days. It has an improved version of our heat shield and it's all around, I think, really a big leap forward in technology. It really takes things to the next level."
The SpaceX Dragon version 2, or V2, spacecraft is Musk's entry in an ongoing NASA competition to develop a commercial crew capsule to carry U.S. and partner astronauts to and from the space station, ending reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft which cost the American space agency more than $70 million per seat under the latest contract.The SpaceX unveiling came the day after a Soyuz launch that delivered three fresh crew members to the station, including a NASA flight engineer. The mission came amid the most tense standoff between Washington and Moscow in decades, over Russia's actions in Ukraine, subsequent U.S. sanctions and Russian threats to pull out of the station program in 2020 and to stop supplying rocket engines used to help launch American military satellites.
Musk did not mention the Soyuz launch, but the SpaceX unveiling Thursday called renewed attention to NASA's current dependence on Russia for basic space transportation, a situation Musk wants to change with the Dragon V2.
But he's not alone. Musk is competing with aerospace giant Boeing, which is developing its own state-of-the-art capsule known as the CST-100, and Sierra Nevada, which is testing a winged lifting body known as the Dream Chaser that would glide to a runway landing much like NASA's retired space shuttle.
Depending on available funding from Congress, NASA is expected to award one and possibly two contracts late this summer to continue spacecraft development, with the ultimate goal of beginning NASA-sanctioned flights to the station around 2017.
With the dramatic unveiling of the Dragon V2 on Thursday, Musk took center stage, showing off a spacecraft he described as a significant step forward and saying he plans to build it whether SpaceX wins the NASA contract or not. Uncrewed test flights could begin as early as late 2015, he said, with the first piloted test flight anticipated by mid-2016.
NASA Commercial Crew Human Spaceflight Program for Transport to the International Space Station (ISS): SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Contracts, Safety Reviews, History and Update Reports
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