SpaceX unveils new spacecraft to take astronauts to space station, back to Earth

Posted at 11:22 AM, May 30, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-30 11:22:17-04

(CNN) – Space travelers, get ready for a new ride.

The Dragon V2 got its grand reveal Thursday night by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who showed off his company’s new spacecraft in a live webcast.

While the California-based company has already made its mark on its industry in its 12 years in business, Dragon V2 marks a major milestone as SpaceX’s first spacecraft capable of bringing humans to the International Space Station then back to Earth.

“It’s all around I think a big leap forward in technology,” Musk said. “It really takes things to the next level.”

The storied entrepreneur — who also founded the Tesla car company – said that “Dragon Version 2,” as he called it, can transport as many as seven astronauts for several days.

One big upgrade from earlier models is that Dragon V2 will be reusable, which will cut down on costs and open up opportunities for humans to explore. Thanks to propulsion and other technology to slow its re-entry into Earth’s orbit and control its descent, Musk said the spacecraft should be able to land most anywhere much like a helicopter.

“As long as we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft, we will never have true access to space,” Musk explained. “It will always be incredibly expensive.”

SpaceX has already done three of its 12 scheduled missions to the International Space Station as part of its $1.6 billion contract with NASA. That includes the first ever connection between that orbiter and a private spacecraft in 2012.

But all its trips so far — including back to Earth, when the SpaceX craft parachuted into the Pacific Ocean — involved only cargo and were unmanned.

Dragon V2 aims to change that.

Thursday’s event included a dramatic unveiling of the new spacecraft, which stood about 15 feet tall, with a rounded, cone-shaped top. At one point, Musk even went inside and sat in one of its four reclined seats.

While such an undertaking likely has been in the works for some time, it comes at a pivotal, uncertain time for the International Space Station and space travel, generally.

NASA’s agreement with SpaceX — plus its $1.9 billion deal with Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corporation for eight missions — takes on increased importance given Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s announcement earlier this month that his country does not plan to use the manned orbiter beyond 2020.

That announcement as well as ratcheted up tensions between Russia and the West has raised concerns about the space station’s future, especially since Russian Soyuz aircraft have become the only way astronauts have been able to get to-and-fro since the end of the U.S. space shuttle program.

This comes after President Barack Obama, in 2010, pushed for the expansion of private-sector and commercial space industries as part of his reimagining of the U.S. space program.

“We will actually reach space faster and more often under this plan,” Obama said, adding this approach would send more astronauts into space over the next decade than previously planned.

“By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send people to orbit Mars and bring them safely back to Earth,”

One team — Paragon Space Development Corp. and the Inspiration Mars Foundation — has said it can beat that mark. In February 2013, it detailed plans to send two humans to launch a spacecraft in 2018 that would pass within 100 miles of Mars before coming back to Earth.

And the Mars One project announced in August that more than 100,000 people had by then applied to take a one-way trip to the Red Planet.