SpaceX is on the verge of revealing the next generation version of its Dragon spacecraft, one which the company hopes will allow the United States to once again send its own astronauts into space by 2017.
The unveiling will take place on Friday, May 29, at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. There, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk will personally showcase the company’s latest space taxi, dubbed the “Dragon V2.”
“SpaceX’s new Dragon V2 spacecraft is a next generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts into space,” read a statement by the company, according to the website Universe Today.
The announcement will also follow through on Musk’s tweet from April, which noted that “actual flight design hardware” of the new Dragon would be shown. In addition to carrying supplies, the Dragon V2 will also be capable of transporting up to seven astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Originally designed with the help of NASA through a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract, the original Dragon was an unmanned spaceship that could transfer up to 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS. The Dragon was successfully launched to the ISS in 2012, becoming the first private ship to deliver supplies to the station and return back to Earth.
When NASA retired the space shuttle program in 2011, however, the United States lost the ability to launch astronauts into space on its own. Instead, it has relied on Russia to hitch rides to the ISS, paying about $71 million per seat on the country’s Soyuz spacecraft. According to The Week, the US has racked up a bill of nearly $458 billion over the last three years.
That relationship was thrust into an awkward light in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, with the US applying sanctions on Russia following the accession of Crimea and Moscow criticizing the Americans for encouraging protests against country’s elected leadership under former president Viktor Yanukovych.
In late April, Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin took to Twitter and, referring to US reliance on Moscow for transportation to the ISS, suggested sanctions would backfire on Washington “like a boomerang.”
"After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline,” he tweeted.
After analysing the sanctions against our space industry I suggest the US delivers its astronauts to the ISS (cont) http://t.co/FAN02udsW9
— Dmitry Rogozin (@DRogozin) April 29, 2014
This prompted a response from Musk, who replied, “Sounds like this might be a good time to unveil the new Dragon Mk 2 spaceship that @SpaceX has been working on w @NASA. No trampoline needed.”
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 29, 2014
Whether or not the Dragon V2 arrives ready to go in 2017, however, remains to be seen. As noted by Universe Today, Congress has routinely cut NASA’s Commercial Crew Program budget, and manned orbital test flights were already pushed from original dates in 2015 to the current 2017 timeframe.
Meanwhile, the Dragon V2 isn't the only spacecraft battling for NASA’s consideration. Both Boeing and Sierra Nevada are also developing space taxis intended to travel to the ISS, and NASA is expected to distribute the next wave of contracts sometime this summer.