SpaceX unveiled the manned version of the Dragon capsule on Thursday evening, May 29. (Yes, about 2 weeks ago. [I’ve been busy.]) If you missed it, here is how SpaceX described Dragon V2.
Judging from Internet reaction, people seem to be enamoured with it. You can read reactions to it elsewhere. I’ll give you my impression.
- The SuperDraco engines, which are used for landing the capsule on solid ground, are also the emergency launch escape system. Unlike Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, where the escape tower was jettisoned at altitude after launch, the SuperDraco engines are integral to the spacecraft. The placement of the engines dictated an altered shape for the capsule. They are presumably evolved from the Draco thrusters used for attitude control, but are 100 times more powerful. (As Elon said, “Hence, the ‘Super’.)
- The large touch-screen panel, which can stowed away, is new to spacecraft design. This indicates that the actual avionics which provide data to the display, are located elsewhere in the capsule — a major departure from previous manned spacecraft and aircraft design. I saw some comments that compared it to a Tesla touch-screen display. I can believe that Tesla might produce some custom components for SpaceX; there is certainly technology sharing going on. To me, the joystick looks like it could have been designed for a sports car.
This is, in my judgement, an incomplete spacecraft, but a really impressive one. The design is probably complete, but what was on display was a basic functional shell. It looks roomy because there weren’t seven people in there, and the storage compartments for food and other crew consumables have not been installed yet. (Oxygen and water are likely provided by tanks on the perimeter out the capsule, but outside the cabin.) Presumably, the crew would spend some time in a shirt-sleeve environment rather than in helmeted pressure suits. There will need to be space to stow suit gear away.
Not on display were the avionics and software for how to do a propulsive soft landing on ground. It stands to reason that SpaceX has an ambitious avionics and software program that encompasses real-time attitude dynamics and engine control. SpaceX has been doing landing tests with Grasshopper and Falcon V9R. Now it will add Dragon V2 to that effort.
A lander for Mars?
SpaceX designs most of its hardware with Mars in mind. It is possible that this fundamental Dragon capsule design could be what lands on Mars. There are, however, a couple caveats.
- The capsule would have to open up to the Martian atmosphere, de-pressurizing to vastly different conditions from what are inside the capsule upon landing. Martian atmospheric pressure is about 1/100th of Earth sea level. The temperature radically colder than Earth, perhaps comparable in some cases to Antarctica.
- If the capsule is to be reusable on Mars, it probably is going to be powered by methane rather than the current hypergolic propellant. Methane can be produced on Mars. Other consumables would have to be produced as well. That is, there needs to be a ground infrastructure for servicing a capsule before it could be reused.
In the final analysis
This is a low-Earth orbit vehicle for ferrying passengers to station such as the ISS or perhaps a Bigelow station, maintain a crew for at most a few days. With few crew members, it could stay in orbit for a longer time.
It is a stepping stone in developing technology for Mars, not the final vehicle, but it is a fairly major one. A launch escape test later this year will demonstrate the SuperDraco engines and avionics in flight.
Footnote: Rick’s been busy
For those who wonder, what happened, why did I drop out of sight?, the answer is, I’ve been busy.
Outside of the day job, I’ve been helping coordinate activities on behalf of the Silicon Valley Space Center. Specifically, we just completed a Space Entrepreneurship Series, a sequence of four meetings for aspiring space entrepreneurs. We consistently had 20+ attendees. Hopefully, this means a bumper crop of new space enterprises in the next year.
My day job is in the software group of a computing hardware design company. Sometimes, I get intriguing challenges, some of which call for really long days just because I can’t stop. The last few weeks have been like that.
To make life more interesting, a couple of space-related efforts I have helped on seem to have attracted attention. More on those later.