The interior of the Dragon V2 has a new car smell.
While the rest of the world checked out the May 29 unveiling of SpaceX’s second-generation space capsule, dozens of salivating space enthusiast reporters had a chance to get close and personal with it. One at a time, press climbed in and, after cumbersome adjustments, settled awkwardly into one of the seven ergonomic reclining chairs to pose for snapshots.
The capsule visit came after a 45-minute post-webcast Q&A with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk who elaborated on the technology presented online, while gamely accommodating the crush of TV reporters gunning for aspirational soundbites and aerospace press demanding tech specs.
The Dragon V2 advances the current model—which will phase out in a few years—with a more powerful engine, improved heat shield, an ability to carry seven astronauts for several days, and capability of landing on the ground with precision and without a parachute. All at less than a third of the cost per astronaut of what Russia charges America.
“It’s an ignominious situation,” said Musk, with a hint of his native South African lilt. “It’s not merely that Russia is taunting the U.S. for lack of manned access to space, but they’re also massively overcharging. I think it’s now $76 million. The quote we’ve provided NASA would allow less than $20 million, assuming a low flight rate. At a high flight rate, it could potentially get to the single-digit millions.”
With an unmanned orbital flight planned for the end of next year, and a manned flight in 2016, Musk envisioned SpaceX logging hundreds of flights within 15 years. “Long term, we want to get to thousands of space flights a year, where ultimately we have a base on the moon and on Mars.”
Dragon V2’s biggest engineering challenge was its SuperDraco engine, which had to offer significantly more power than the Dragon 1, while remaining very light. It produces 16,000 pounds of thrust, compared to its predecessor's 100 pounds of thrust, and has a deeper throttle, enabling more precise responses in widely varying conditions. “It was quite a tricky thing to develop,” said Musk. “It’s quite a complex engine.”
“The normal way to make an engine is to machine a whole bunch of parts and weld them together,” said Musk. “But that makes them heavier, less robust, and more expensive. Being able to print very high-strength alloys was crucial to making the engine. Initially, we thought of it as sort of a Hail Mary on the Draco, and actually it turns out that it worked super well.”
Another major engineering hurdle was improving the heat shield—key to the Dragon V2’s reusability and, therefore, economy.
“The main heat shield is what would need to be refurbished. We want this to be able to arrive and fly out the same day, and handle 10 flights without any significant refurbishment,” said Musk.
The Dragon V2 uses a third version of SpaceX’s PICA-X heat shield, a variant of NASA’s Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) heat shield it improved with NASA to sustain multiple trips of peak 6000˚F temperatures and 19,000 mph speeds. “It could probably handle twice that kinetic energy, maybe more,” said Musk.
“It’s impregnated carbon fiber and the highest heat flux material known to man,” he continued. “We started with that as a baseline then developed a variant of PICA called PICA X. With each successive mission, we experimented with improvements on heat shield materials.” Musk couldn’t elaborate on those proprietary ingredients.
“With each version, we’ve been able to reduce the amount of recession that occurs in the heat shield,” he added. “Think of it as a giant brake pad. The better that material technology gets, the more uses it can go through, just like a break pad on the car. Eventually it does need to be replaced, but eventually we might be able to get up to 100 flights.”
“America is probably the only place where it would be possible for a private space company to get this far, in part, because of the critical mass of talented engineers and technicians we were able to attract to do the design and construction of this spacecraft," said Musk. “We actually hire a lot of our best software engineers out of the gaming industry, where there’s a lot of smart engineering talent doing really complex things. [Compared to] a lot of the algorithms involved in massive multiplayer online games, a docking sequence [between spacecraft] is relatively straightforward.”
Then there's capital. “Coming out of PayPal [which Musk co-founded], I had a bunch of capital that I could spend developing rocket technology, even though I had no experience in rockets at all," said Musk. "And if I tried to get money from venture capitalists for that, they would have been angry that I met with them probably. Even in the best of circumstances, space is outside the comfort zone of most venture capitalists.”
The first VC funds didn’t arrive until five years after starting SpaceX in 2002, with NASA support arriving in the last several. “NASA has been really crucial to our success,” he said. “This is something I should have mentioned onstage, but we would not be where we are today without the help of NASA.”
While the Falcon 9 rocket that propels the Dragon into space is privately funded, the Dragon itself is 70-80 percent NASA funded. “NASA is our single largest customer, but the NASA missions are quarter of the missions on our manifest.” With NASA budgets at the whim of politics, “If we don’t win another NASA contract, we’ll do our best to continue development. Others have expressed interest. [Bigelow Aerospace founder] Bob Bigelow—he’s here somewhere—wants to use our technology.” (Bigelow Aerospace is a private space startup designing more economic orbiting habitats.)
“The thing that got me to start Space X was being disappointed that we’d not made progress beyond Apollo," said Musk. "There was this incredible dream of exploration that was ignited with Apollo and it had felt as though the dream had died. And year after year, we did not see improvements in rocket technology. Even before I started SpaceX, my goal was to increase the NASA budget to make that happen. But, as I learned more, I discovered that, unless we improve our rocket technology, it’s just not going to matter. Eventually there will be something that happens on Earth, either man-made or natural calamity . . . to cause the end of civilization.
"I"m really proud of my team for creating such an incredible piece of technology," he adds. "Here we have a shot to advance space technology and take things to the next level. To some degree, maybe this helps revive the dream of Apollo."
Thanks to Air Force pilot-turned space journalist Derrick Stamos, you can watch video of the Q & A here: