SpaceX proposes rocket-powered landing system

December 28, 2010 – 02:19 pm

LOS ANGELES - SpaceX announced Monday it submitted a proposal to NASA last month to start an estimated $1 billion process upgrading the company's Dragon capsule, the first step in making the ship ready for crew rotation flights to the International Space Station.

Artist's concept of the Dragon spacecraft maneuvering in orbit. Credit: SpaceX
The Hawthorne, Calif.-based firm transmitted the proposal to NASA Dec. 13. It entered the second Commercial Crew Development, or CCDev 2, competition along with several other aerospace contractors for a share of the expected $200 million payout to be released as early as March.

According to a SpaceX website update, the company is proposing to begin the design of a launch abort system, the emergency escape rocket that would save astronauts from an exploding rocket.

Unlike traditional emergency systems, called a tractor design by engineers, SpaceX wants to build an integrated launch abort rocket to provide escape capability throughout the rocket's flight to orbit. Tractor designs used by the U.S. Mercury and Apollo programs were thrown away a few minutes after liftoff, as soon as their boosters cleared the atmosphere.

The integrated system would be part of the Dragon capsule, staying with the spacecraft during months at the International Space Station and returning to Earth at the end of a normal flight. It could even be fired for a rocket-assisted touchdown on land, bringing astronauts home to a soft landing closer to recovery teams.

The launch abort engine "enables superior landing capabilities since the escape engines can potentially be used for a precise land landing of Dragon under rocket power, " the SpaceX announcement said.

Musk alluded to the rocket-powered landing concept in a press conference last month.

An emergency parachute would always be carried as a backup, according to SpaceX.

SpaceX claims the concept improves crew safety and reduces Dragon operating costs.

If the company wins a slice of NASA's award money this year, it will be just the first step in a multi-year development to make the Dragon capsule ready for crewed missions. Although the Dragon was designed from the start for human flights, the cargo version of the craft SpaceX tested last month lacks an escape system, seats and flight controls.

SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule Dec. 8. The Dragon circled Earth twice before plunging back into Earth's atmosphere and successfully splashing down under parachutes in the Pacific Ocean. It was a critical demo mission for the company, which now employs more than 1, 000 workers and hopes to take over a large chunk of NASA's crew and cargo transportation to low Earth orbit.

The Dragon capsule after recovery in the Pacific Ocean in December. Credit: Mike Altenhofen/SpaceX

According to Musk, it will likely cost $1 billion and take three years to have a flight-ready Dragon ready for crew duty. That includes test flights.


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