The future called from California on Thursday night and wants its spaceship back.
Billionaire, inventor and Silicon Valley superstar Elon Musk appeared before an audience of cheering fans and a lot of cameras to debut the newest version of his Dragon space craft, a sleek and modern-looking capsule dubbed Dragon V2.
In a brief presentation, the SpaceX CEO didn’t name Russia explicitly, but the hope — shared by many in Silicon Valley as well as in Washington — is that the Dragon V2 will one day decrease U.S. reliance on Russia Soyuz rockets to send astronauts to the International Space Station.
The Dragon V2, or version two, is capable of carrying seven people and promises a “dramatic reduction in the cost of access to space,” Musk told the crowd.
Key to that cost reduction is the capsule’s reusability. Musk highlighted the craft’s ability to “land anywhere on earth with the accuracy of a helicopter,” thanks to it’s souped-up boosters and redesigned heat shield. According to Musk, that’s “how a 21st-century spaceship should land.”
The Dragon V2 can perform autonomous docking (or piloted docking) at the ISS without guidance from the station’s shuttle manipulating arm, or Canadarm, “a significant upgrade” from the Dragon version one ship.
Traversing the stage in an easy stride, Musk took a moment to point out the Dragon’s Super Draco engine, the first thruster engine that is “fully” 3D printed from a special high-strength alloy. The Super Draco is capable of 16,000 lbs. of thrust vs. 100 lbs. for the regular Draco. “Hence the super,” Musk explained to audience laughter. These engines help the craft maneuver in space and also manage trajectory upon descent. During re-entry, the craft will rely on an upgraded heat shield to protect it from the massive re-entry temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Much like its predecessor, the Dragon V2 ascends to space hitched to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Getting American astronauts on Russian rockets is a privilege for which the U.S. pays $60 million per passenger, per round trip. Not only is it a costly customer relationship for the U.S., but one with an expiration date. In May, Russian deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced that Russia would no longer allow U.S. astronauts access to the ISS aboard Soyuz space craft after 2020. Rogozin said that Russia would be ending participation in the ISS program that year, despite proposals from NASA to extend use of the ISS to 2024.
The relationship between Russia and the U.S. is not unlike space itself — dark, cold and devoid of affection. But the same could be said of Musk’s relationship with his closest competitor in the space race, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint collaboration between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. ULA is the outfit responsible for getting U.S. military satellites into space. ULA’s Atlas V rocket uses the Russian made RD-180 engine. In addition to booting U.S. astronauts off of Soyuz rockets, Rogozin also announced that Russia would no-longer sell the RD-180 to the U.S. for the purposes of sending U.S. military satellites into space.
In April, SpaceX filed a formal complaint to end the way the U.S. does business with ULA, through what’s called the “block buy” program. The program currently awards the next 36 satellite launches over the next five years to ULA and just seven to insurgent bidders like SpaceX. The complaint asserted that the use of the Russian made RD-180 rockets was in possible violation of Executive Order 13661, which targets members of the Russian government for sanctions (and served as the catalyst for the spat with Rogozon.)
SpaceX won a brief injunction in the case but the court eventually sided with the US government’s appeal and determined that the purchase of the RD-180 didn’t violate the order. ULA also points out that they have more than a two year supply of the engines on hand and won’t need to go to Russia to purchase any more anytime soon.
The block buy program has friends on Capitol Hill.
“We want to be able to keep the program going and we want to get the benefit of that block-buy program… We try to balance,” Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters after a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 22.
Congressional loyalty to block buy doesn’t mean that leaders don’t want greater competition between SpaceX and ULA. Rather, the government has to do a lot of expensive testing to make sure SpaceX equipment is safe to ferry military satellites into orbit, (much less humans to the ISS.) The Senate Armed Services Committee recently put $100 million into the National Defense Authorization Act to “develop a state-of-the-art rocket engine to make sure that we have assured access to space for our astronauts as well as our military space payloads,” according to Sen. Bill Nelson D-Fla.
Levin insisted that that the goal was “to get them [SpaceX] certified as quickly as they can so they can compete.” But, Levin said, “Until they’re certified we want to be able to keep the program going and we want to get the benefit of that block-buy program.”
Support for SpaceX is firmer elsewhere in Washington. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, speaking at a Space Symposium in Colorado Springs earlier this month, said that “launch costs are a huge part of my budget, so the way to drive down cost typically is through competition.” He went on to give a special “shout out” to SpaceX for innovation.
Shortly after the injunction lost in court, SpaceX amended its complaint to “shine a light on the fact that the Air Force continues to delay the certification process, originally saying that SpaceX would be certified in 2014, but now saying it may take until 2015 (a process by the way, that ULA did not have to go through),” a SpaceX spokesperson wrote in an email to reporters.
The Dragon V2 unveiling wasn’t directly related to the block buy controversy but it was clearly part of the broader PR war that SpaceX is waging against ULA. In his brief demonstration Musk seemed intent to make two points: SpaceX is an engine of innovation and, because of the way Washington works, that engine remains grounded.