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At a press conference following the successful touchdown of a SpaceX’s Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station, CEO Elon Musk said that Dragon 2 will look like “a real alien spaceship” and be capable of propulsive touchdowns on land. Musk also said at the briefing that SpaceX will attempt a water landing of its Falcon 9 rocket later this year — another key step towards reusable, cheaper spaceflight.
Not a whole lot is known about Dragon 2. We have known for a while about DragonRider, a crewed version of Dragon, but there has never been a specific timeline for its launch. Judging by Musk’s remarks, reported by Parabolic Arc, it seems that Dragon 2 will be an upgraded version of the uncrewed Dragon spacecraft — and later, Dragon 2 will be upgraded to become the crewed DragonRider. According to Musk, Dragon 2 will have larger windows for astronauts to see outside, and “landing legs that pop out of the bottom” and “side-mounted thruster pods” to allow for propulsive landings on land. “It looks kind of like a real alien spaceship, ” he says. SpaceX hopes that touching down on land will allow it to conduct missions at a faster tempo. (See: How SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft docks with the International Space Station.)
Musk did not announce a schedule for when the first powered touchdowns would be attempted, only saying that the Dragon 2 would be officially announced later this year. Will the pop-out legs and side thrusters really make Dragon 2 look like a “real alien spaceship”? We’ll just have to wait and see. To me, it sounds more like it will look like the Apollo Lunar Module lander.
Currently, the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle plunge into the ocean after launch — but eventually, SpaceX plans to have both stages land gently back on Earth and be reusable within “single-digit hours.” To this end, Musk announced that SpaceX will attempt a water landing of a Falcon 9 first stage later this year. In essence, the first stage will detach, begin its descent, and then perform a controlled burn to bring the rocket slowly down into the ocean. After SpaceX has done this a few times and proven that its method is safe, the first stage will instead fly back and land at the launch site. This could happen as soon as mid-2014. Once the first stage is reusable, the cost of launching a Falcon rocket into space will drop precipitously. One the second stage is also reusable, which will take a little while longer, a new age of not-prohibitively-expensive space travel will begin.
In related news, Grasshopper — SpaceX’s experimental vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) rocket — recently completed its highest hop yet, climbing to 80 meters and then landing safely on its feet. Grasshopper is essentially a testbed for VTVL technologies that will eventually find their way into SpaceX’s larger, orbital rockets.
Finally, here’s a feel-good video that celebrates SpaceX’s 11th birthday, which was a couple of weeks ago:
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