The head of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. said his company's new spacecraft is designed to fly from outer space to Earth and, like a helicopter, touch down safely on the ground.
"You'll be able to land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter," Elon Musk, chief executive officer of SpaceX, said on Thursday during an unveiling ceremony for the craft at the company's California headquarters. "That is how a 21st century spaceship should land."
In a brief but sleek roll-out of the so-called Dragon V2, Musk took to a stage on the factory floor to highlight the spacecraft's next-generation technologies, including the new SuperDraco engine system that allows for propulsive landings, touch-screen controls and a more durable heat shield.
Unlike existing versions of the spacecraft that fly as unmanned cargo ships to resupply the International Space Station, the new model will be able to carry as many as seven astronauts to the orbital outpost. It's designed to dock at the site autonomously or under piloted control -- without assistance from the station's robotic arm.
While the latest version of the Dragon will, like its predecessors, be able to deploy parachutes after re-entering Earth's atmosphere and splash down into the ocean in an emergency, it's primarily designed to touch down on land using the new SuperDraco engines.
The propulsion system is composed of eight SuperDraco engines installed as pairs along the module's walls. Each is capable of producing almost 16,000 pounds of thrust, for a combined total of 120,000 pounds of axial thrust. The engine is essentially an upgraded version of the standard Draco, which produces 100 pounds of thrust for attitude control.
Apart from the convenience of landing on the ground, the new propulsion system will make the spacecraft more reusable and help to lower launch costs, Musk said.
"You can just reload propellant and fly again," he said. "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."
He added, "If aircraft were thrown away with each flight, then nobody would be able to fly."
The engine chamber is made of Inconel, a high-performance superalloy, using a process called direct metal laser sintering, a form of 3-D printing. When the company tests the spacecraft -- an unmanned mission scheduled for 2016 -- it will mark the "first time that a printed rocket engine sees flight," Musk said.
The spacecraft also features the third iteration of the company's heat-shield technology, designed to improve re-usability by ablating less as it re-enters the atmosphere, Musk said.
Inside, the spacecraft is designed to have a "very clean, very simple" aesthetic, with touch-screen controls that pilots pull down from overhead and lock into place, Musk said. Manual buttons needed to perform critical functions in an emergency are located on the center console, he said.
SpaceX has a contract with NASA to resupply the space station and is competing against Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin LLC to design hardware that can eventually fly astronauts there. That may not happen until 2017, at the earliest, due in part to federal budget cuts.
The company is also trying to break into the military launch market and has sued the Air Force to open more missions to competition. It was recently accused of straining U.S.-Russia space relations by a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture that dominates the military market.
The U.S. retired its shuttle fleet in 2011 and relies on Russia for rides to space at a cost of more than $60 million per astronaut.