SpaceX: Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon demo video teases 5 key innovations
SpaceX’s latest video demonstrates the company’s big plans to transform spaceflight.
On December 30, the firm shared a video via YouTube of its planned Crew Dragon capsule launching two astronauts into space. The capsule docks with the International Space Station, before successfully returning to Earth. The three-minute video demonstrates both the planned crew capsule, as well as a multitude of other advancements including a Tesla vehicle and a high-quality spacesuit.
If all goes to plan, the video should become a reality before long. CEO Elon Musk claimed in October 2019 that the first “Demo-2” flight, which will send two astronauts on a test mission, could launch as soon as the first quarter of 2020. The capsule is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, aimed at bringing manned launches back to the United States.
The program hasn’t been plain sailing. The Government Accountability Office warned both SpaceX and Boeing face chronic delays, and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine appeared on Twitter to criticize SpaceX’s focus on getting humans to Mars.
But as SpaceX prepares for what could be an impressive 2020, the company’s video demonstrates five key innovations that could prove critical to entering a new era for space travel.
5. Tesla Model X
Blink and you’ll miss it: at the start of the video, the astronaut stands up from a vehicle with a rather familiar-looking door. Although the rest of the vehicle is shrouded in shadow, the falcon wing door is reminiscent of the Tesla Model X electric SUV, the company’s first — and, judging by Musk’s “Faberge egg” comments, possibly last — car to feature the exotic design.
The Model X has become something of a favorite demo car for Musk’s non-Tesla company demonstrations. It made an appearance at The Boring Company’s tunnel demonstration in December 2018 as an ideal candidate for whizzing under cities autonomously at up to 150 mph.
SpaceX previously used the Model X back in August 2018 for a “successful dry run of Day of Launch Closeout Crew procedures.” That suggests the car shown in the video is more than just a stand-in and could serve as the vehicle that ferries astronauts to the launch pad.
4. Crew Dragon walkway
With SpaceX’s move into manned flights, the company is scaling up its infrastructure at the pad to suit human passengers. One of these advancements is the space-age-looking walkway, demonstrated in the slow-motion shot that sets a dramatic scene for the flight.
SpaceX was spotted installing the walkway at pad 39A back in August 2018. As the Falcon 9 measures around 230 feet and the capsule sits on top, the walkway is situated higher than the one used for the space shuttle that jutted out just under 200 feet from the floor. The walkway was spotted ahead of the Demo-1 launch back in January.
3. Falcon 9
One of the biggest innovations that will help power the Crew Dragon is the Falcon 9 rocket. The first stage has a thrust of 1.7 million pounds at sea level thanks to its nine Merlin engines. It helped the firm become the first commercial company to visit the International Space Station back in 2012.
SpaceX describes it as “the first orbital class rocket capable of reflight,” with its ability to successfully launch and land safely. It first successfully landed in 2014, and in 2017 the company successfully landed the rocket 15 times with a 100 percent success rate. The advancements will help SpaceX fine-tune the Mars-bund Starship, designed with full reusability in mind so humans can visit Mars and return after refueling.
Musk first revealed the SpaceX suit back in August 2017. The design was inspired by video games like Halo and Mass Effect. Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, the pair set to embark on the first manned voyage, tried out the suit in October 2019. Astronaut Sunita Williams, who also tried out the suit, told Business Insider in July 2018 that SpaceX and Boeing’s suits are “both better than suits that we’ve had in the past.”
The suit has seen two major outings in space so far. It was used on the February 2018 Falcon Heavy launch with a dummy called “Starman,” sat inside Musk’s red Tesla Roadster on a journey around the solar system. During the March 2019 “Demo-1” mission a sensor-equipped dummy called “Ripley” provided vital data about how humans may feel inside the Crew Dragon.
1. Landing ship
The end of the video shows one design choice perhaps already familiar to SpaceX watchers — a ship positioned in the ocean, ready to take the capsule back to shore.
SpaceX used a similar setup for the March 2019 “Demo-1” mission. The GO Searcher vessel waited in the Atlantic Ocean for the capsule to splash down on March 8, returning to the Jetty Park port the following evening.
It could prove perhaps the most vital aspect of the manned mission. Musk said during a March 2019 press conference that “hypersonic re-entry,” as the Crew Dragon’s parachute and other systems are pushed to the limit, was “probably my greatest concern.”