The future of SpaceX’s plans for human space exploration hinges on two key pieces of technology — and the company’s mission to the moon next year will be a key testing milestone for both. The first is hotter, and literally more explosive: the Falcon Heavy rocket, which upon completion will be the world’s most powerful rocket. The other piece, while less of a visual spectacle, is no less important: the Dragon 2 crew capsule, which will be capable of ferrying humans to and from space.
Dragon 2 is a fully autonomous spacecraft designed to carry up to seven humans to the International Space Station, the moon, and possibly even Mars (as a future Red Dragon version). NASA’s Commercial Crew Program provided most of the funding for developing the Dragon 2.
Like SpaceX’s other vehicles, Dragon 2 can land anywhere on Earth to be refueled and reused for multiple missions in the future. Since the company’s inception SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been bullish on using reusable architecture as a way to reduce the costs of spaceflight, be it robotic or crewed.
What does it look like?
Dragon 2 looks like a large white candy corn with a winged metal cylinder beneath it. Including the trunk, it’s 23.6 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter. Dragon 2 has four windows, and passengers can watch the stunning views of the Earth, Moon, and solar system as they zip through space. The top of the spacecraft can readily dock with the ISS.
The spacecraft is fitted with a Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator-X (PICA-X) heat shield to protect it and any passengers inside from extreme temperatures during reentry.
Dragon 2 has an escape system in case an emergency occurs in Earth’s atmosphere. Eight SuperDraco engines built into the sidewalls can produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry passengers more than half a kilometer away in just over five seconds, to safer grounds. If passengers need to escape, they will experience approximately the same G-forces as a Disneyland ride.
Normally, engines for launch abort systems are carried on top of space vehicles. For Dragon 2, the engine chamber was regeneratively cooled and 3D printed in a superalloy called Inconel, and is integrated directly into Dragon 2, so there’s escape capability from the launch pad all the way into orbit.
The system also allows Dragon 2 to land with the accuracy of a helicopter, making the spacecraft reusable. It lands separately from its trunk, with legs emerging from the bottom to soften the impact.
Dragon 2 has black and white seats made of carbon fiber and Alcantara cloth, as well as futuristic-looking digital displays that provide real-time information about the spacecraft’s location in space, possible destinations, and the environment on board.
Space has some extreme conditions, but Dragon 2 has environmental control and life support systems which allow passengers to set the spacecraft’s interior temperature between 65 and 80 degrees. It’s just like fiddling with your thermostat in your home.
Dragon 2 was unveiled in May 2014 as the official successor to the original Dragon. Some upgrades on Dragon 2 include an ISS docking adapter, impact reducing landing legs, and a more advanced heat shield.
In June 2014, SpaceX put Dragon 2 on public display outside the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Just a month later, the company tested the spacecraft’s SuperDraco engines in McGregor, Texas.
In September 2014, NASA selected SpaceX to be part of its human spaceflight program and develop a vehicle which could send crews to the ISS from U.S. soil once again. The contract was worth a princely $2.6 billion contract.
On May 6, 2015, SpaceX conducted a pad abort test, or a trial run for the launch escape system at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Cape Canaveral, Florida. This was Dragon 2’s first critical flight test.
In this two-minute test, the entire spacecraft (which had a dummy inside to collect data on gravitational loads) had to be ejected away from the launch vehicle, and Dragon 2 must land safely in the Atlantic Ocean. In an actual flight, this system would quickly get the crew and spacecraft away from the rocket in case of launch failure.
The test was successful, with the eight SuperDracos reaching a maximum thrust to launch Dragon 2 into the air and fire the spacecraft up at a maximum velocity of 345 mph. SpaceX was able to gather data about the timeline of launch, the ability of the SuperDragon engines to respond to incoming data, the trajectory of Dragon 2, and external and internal factors to ensure safe conditions for passengers.
In November 2015, SpaceX conducted a short engine firing test and a propulsive hover test in McGregor, Texas. The SuperDraco thrusters fired simultaneously to raise Dragon 2 to hover for five seconds before returning it to a resting position.
On February 27, SpaceX officially announced it would send two private citizens on a mission to circumnavigate the moon in late 2018. These two people paid a huge deposit to go to the moon and will have to undergo health and fitness tests, as well as training. The two private citizens haven’t been named, but there are a few guesses — some possible, some totally improbable.
Later this year, SpaceX will launch Dragon 2 to the ISS. The first mission won’t have a crew on board, but in the second quarter of 2018, SpaceX will send a mission with a crew on Dragon 2. SpaceX is contracted to perform about four Dragon 2 missions to the ISS per year, three with cargo and one with a crew.
In late 2018, SpaceX will finally launch its lunar mission from Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A near Cape Canaveral, which was also used by the Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon. This would be the first time humans return to the moon since 1972.
According to SpaceX, other flight teams expressed interest in going to the moon, and the company expects to work with those parties to develop future lunar missions.