Friday, May 30, 2014

Dragon Legs It Out

Click the arrow to watch the unveil event.

Click the arrow to watch Dragon V2 flight animation. Both videos: SpaceX YouTube channel.

One month after Russian deputy prime minister Dmitri Rogozin cracked a joke on Twitter about NASA using a trampoline to reach the International Space Station, SpaceX founder Elon Musk made good on his promise that day to reveal his crewed Dragon on May 29.

If SpaceX can deliver on the technology shown in last night's unveil event, very soon no one other than Russian cosmonauts will fly on the Soyuz.

The Russian capsule has evolved incrementally since its debut in 1967. It's reliable, and some might even say it's perfected, but it doesn't reflect modern technology.

The same could be said for the vehicles flown by United Launch Alliance for the U.S. government. As I wrote on May 22, ULA is paid handsomely to be reliable — not to innovate. Innovation creates the potential of risk due to unknowns.

NASA's Orion crew vehicle, built by Lockheed Martin, is billed as a next-generation spacecraft, but at best it's an evolution of Apollo-era technology. Orion has suffered from political fits and starts. Conceived ten years ago as the Crew Exploration Vehicle, it survived the botched Constellation program when members of Congress ordered the Space Launch System to protect aerospace contractor jobs. Today known as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a simplified version is scheduled to launch in December 2014 atop a Delta IV, then a second Orion (yet to be built) most likely will launch on the Space Launch System in 2018 to fly past the Moon. After that? On paper, the first crewed flight is in 2021, but Congress has yet to commit to any missions or destinations.

The Dragon V2, if it performs as illustrated in the computer animation, will be reusable. It will have legs and SuperDraco thrusters to steer it back to a landing — Musk says it will land almost anywhere, with the precision of a helicopter. Dragon will have parachutes, but only as a backup. Its ablative heat shield evolved from NASA's Phenolic Impregnanted Carbon Ablator (PICA) technology. SpaceX evolved it into PICA-X, and Musk stated that V2 will have the third version of their shield.

All of this with the goal of flying a reusable spacecraft, one that Musk calls a 21st Century spaceship.

The other two competitors in NASA's commercial crew program are Boeing with the CST-100 capsule, and Sierra Nevada with the Dream Chaser spaceplane.

Although all three have the same objective, in my opinion Dragon can only compare with the CST-100 because both are capsules. A spaceplane offers unique features that differ from the capsule approach.

If NASA is forced to down-select late this summer as key members of Congress insist, it may come down to Dream Chaser and then Dragon versus CST-100.

Click the arrow to watch a computer animation of a CST-100 launch and landing. Video source: collectSPACE YouTube channel.

In the above 2011 computer animation, CST-100 is shown using parachutes and air bags to land in the American Southwest.

Boeing unveiled a mockup of the CST-100 on April 30 at a joint media event with Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas. The non-NASA version would carry nine passengers and fly to Bigelow expandable habitats.

But its landing system is 20th Century technology. Dragon V2, as Mr. Musk said, is the 21st Century.

Boeing will be at Kennedy Space Center June 9 to show their hangar renovations to the media. It's anticipated that the CST-100 design will be available for the media to examine.

If I were attending, I would ask Boeing about why they think their landing system is superior to the one proposed by SpaceX. That might make the difference.

Media articles:

Associated Press “Elon Musk Unveils Spacecraft to Ferry Astronauts”

Associated Press “5 Things to Know About SpaceX's Flight Plans”

CBS News “Elon Musk's Bid to Build NASA's New Space Taxi”

CNN “SpaceX Unveils New Spacecraft to Take Astronauts to Space Station, Back to Earth”

Forbes “SpaceX Unveils Its New Dragon Spacecraft7rdquo;

The Guardian “Elon Musk Unveils Dragon V2 Spacecraft for Seven Astronauts”

Los Angeles Times “Elon Musk Unveils New Astronaut-Ready Spaceship at SpaceX Headquarters” “SpaceX Lifts the Lid on the Dragon V2 Crew Spacecraft”

NBC News “Mars Ahead? SpaceX Unveils Dragon V2 Capsule for Astronaut Trips” “Glitz, Glam and SpaceX: Inside Elon Musk's Dragon V2 Spaceship”

Spaceflight Now “SpaceX Reveals New-Look Passenger Spacecraft”

USA Today “SpaceX Unveils Its New Manned Shuttle”

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