In the spam of 13 years, Elon Musk went from what seemed like a far-fetched dream of creating a “Mars Oasis,” to building a company, SpaceX, which disrupted the space industry with its innovative engineering that drastically reduced the costs of launching rockets and spacecrafts into space.
SpaceX has become the fastest growing space transportation company in the world with almost 50 space missions, and in 2012, it made history by becoming the first ever commercial company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), a feat previously achieved only by governments. Now, SpaceX is ready to turn another page in the history books by becoming one of only two companies, along with Boeing, to be awarded by NASA the prestigious contract for the transportation of American astronauts to and from the ISS.
Since the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011, the Russian Federal Space Agency has taken the responsibility of carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The Russians used the reliable, but very old, Soyuz spacecraft to accomplish the goal. The spacecraft, which went into service in 1967, can carry both cargo and 3 astronauts, and can be permanently docked to the ISS. While the Soyuz represented a good short-term alternative to the retired Space Shuttle, NASA wanted to reduce its dependence on Russia to carry American astronauts into space, and was eager to save some of the $70.7 million per seat currently charged by the Russian Federal Space Agency.
"It’s really exciting to see SpaceX and Boeing with hardware in flow for their first crew rotation missions," said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. "It is important to have at least two healthy and robust capabilities from U.S. companies to deliver crew and critical scientific experiments from American soil to the space station throughout its lifespan."
SpaceX’s Innovative Crew Dragon SpacecraftConsistent with its out-of-the-box thinking approach, SpaceX has developed a highly innovative variation of its successful Cargo Dragon spacecraft. The new Crew Dragon spacecraft, which leverages the Falcon 9 launch rocket, can cost-effectively carry both cargo and up to 7 astronauts, and is capable of terrestrial soft-landing.
The spacecraft uses a first-in-its-kind dedicated escape system, which allows astronauts safe escape, in the event of a launch anomaly, all the way from launch ascent to orbit. The spacecraft employs the SuperDraco launch abort system, which is capable of safely moving the Crew Dragon away from the launch vehicle at any point during ascent.
The interior of the spacecraft uses a minimalistic, but futuristic-looking design, with sports-car-like leather seats and state-of-the-art controls, which include a sliding touchscreen control panel that provides the crew with complete situational awareness and insight into the health and status of their vehicle.
Reducing The Costs Of Space TravelMost rockets are expensive to operate because they are designed to burn up on reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. However, to further reduce space travel costs, SpaceX has designed a new version of its Falcon 9 rocket to be fully reusable and to return to the launch pad through an automated vertical landing. SpaceX is currently testing this solution to make it flight-ready.
Elon Musk estimated that, through a combination of innovative engineering and cost-cutting approach, SpaceX will provide NASA with a cost of around $20 million per astronaut seat, a saving of about 72% on NASA’s current contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency.
"The authority to proceed with Dragon's first operational crew mission is a significant milestone in the Commercial Crew Program and a great source of pride for the entire SpaceX team," said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX. “When Crew Dragon takes NASA astronauts to the space station in 2017, they will be riding in one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown. We're honored to be developing this capability for NASA and our country.”