With just a bit of Hollywood-esque flash, SpaceX unveiled the long-awaited passenger-carrying version of their Dragon spacecraft Thursday during a ceremony at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, CA. In front of a gathering of media, employees and invited guests, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk lifted the curtain on the upgraded capsule known as Dragon Version 2, which sports advanced thrusters and a cabin outfitted with sleek touchscreen controls.

“This is extremely important for revolutionizing access to space,” said Musk.

Dragon V2 represents an extreme makeover of the original version of the spacecraft that currently makes unmanned cargo resupply deliveries to the International Space Station. Dragon V1 has flown successfully five times in its history, including three flights to ISS under SpaceX’s $1.6 billion station resupply services contract with NASA.

Dragon V2 is unveiled. Credit: SpaceX.

Dragon V2 is unveiled. Credit: SpaceX.

However, in order for SpaceX to fly its own astronauts and commercial passengers requires a radical upgrade in the capsule’s capabilities.

“When we first created Dragon Version 1, we didn’t really know how to create a spacecraft; we had never designed a spacecraft before,” said Elon Musk

SpaceX’s first capsule designed for human transportation is capable of carrying up to seven passengers to low Earth orbit. Once in space, Dragon V2 will be able to support the crew on its own for up to seven days.

One of the key upgrades that sets Version 2 apart from the original Dragon is the SuperDraco engines. The spacecraft will use these engines for both on-orbit maneuvering and landing. The new Dragon represents a major shift in the way manned spacecraft are operated. Unlike its predecessors, which land using parachutes, Dragon V2 will use its onboard engines to conduct a propulsive landing, touching down on dry land using extended legs.

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“That is how a 21st-century spaceship should land,” Musk said.

“You can just reload propellants and fly again. This is extremely important for revolutionizing access to space because so long as we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft, we will never have true access to space. It will always be incredibly expensive.”

At least initially, Dragon will still backup carry parachutes as an added safety precaution in case of engine failure or propellant loss during its approach for landing.

Like the Russian Soyuz, it will remain docked with ISS for up to six months.

Also like the Soyuz and its unmanned Progress counterpart, Dragon V2 won’t require assistance of crewmembers onboard the station or Canadarm2 in order to dock with the outpost. This capability marks an advance over Dragon V1, the Japanese HTV, European ATV and the Cygnus resupply craft manufactured by Orbital Sciences Corporation.

On look inside the capsule reveals that this isn’t a 21st Century re-tread of 1960’s technology. For one thing, even with seven people it’s far roomier than any capsule-based spacecraft built to date. It is designed with crew comfort in consideration, not merely accommodation. Even the seats reflect this, looking like they belong in a Tesla luxury sedan more than a space capsule.

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

Inside the cabin, most of the controls utilize touchscreen interfaces backed up by state of the art software.

“As the pilot you’re able to interact with the screens overhead, control the spacecraft and then we’ve got all the critical functions that are needed in an emergency situation as manual buttons,” said Musk.

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SpaceX CEO shows off the interior and advanced heads-up display inside Dragon V2. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is one of three companies vying for the privilege of transporting future expedition crewmembers to the space station. Boeing Company and Sierra Nevada Corporation are also developing manned spacecraft. Boeing is developing ts CST-100 capsule and Sierra Nevada is pitching Dream Chaser, a winged mini-shuttle based on NASA’s HL-20 lifting body work.

In 2012, NASA awarded contracts to the companies for development of their respective vehicles. SpaceX was awarded $440 million, with $460 million going to Boeing and $212.5 million to Sierra Nevada. Rather than receiving full payment up front or once all work is complete, the companies are receiving milestone payments when pre-determined development objectives are reached.

Eventually, NASA will select one or two companies to provide human transportation services to ISS and end reliance on the Russian Soyuz for crew transport.

(Matthew Travis / Zero-G News)

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