Friday, June 13, 2014

"A 21st Century Spacecraft"

A week or so ago, we finally got a look at the long-anticipated manned version of the Dragon spacecraft. Originally, we were expecting something not too dissimilar to the existing Dragon. We've seen it presented like this:

Designs often change, though; what we saw a few weeks ago looked like this:

The unveil event can also be seen on YouTube, if you haven't seen it yet. I'm not going to talk about it much, but here it is in case you're interested.

A few non-obvious points:

First: This gives us something we haven't had in a long time, if ever: a manned spacecraft with a crew abort option throughout the flight envelope. We had that after a fashion with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Mercury and Apollo had a launch escape tower, and Gemini had ejection seats. The Shuttle had its own ... special problems. First of all, while the SRBs burned, you had no options. None. As I say sometimes, if something goes wrong before you punch those things off ... well, the Chaplain briefs that Emergency Procedure on Sunday mornings. And the Return to Launch Site abort wasn't much better. In simulated aborts, I've heard they got the Orbiter back about one time in three. They got the crew back somewhat more often, two times in three. Not. Good. But now, we'll get a fully controlled, accurate landing capability, available throughout ascent. This is much better.

Second: I find the relocation of the solar cells interesting. Look at the proposed Falcon Heavy for a minute:

I ran the numbers a while back, and a Falcon Heavy can put a nearly-full Falcon second stage plus Dragon payload in Earth orbit. The second stage has enough juice left for Translunar Injection, Lunar Orbit Insertion, and Transearth Injection. That said, I wasn't sure how the "wings" on the current Dragon would hold up under thrust. Well, that's a moot point with Dragon V2. Now that the cells are mounted flush against the outer wall, it's all good. Clearly, they're looking ahead to using V2 with the heavy-lift version.

Third: Seven seats. And, they look like pretty nice seats. 

Hand-tooled leather available as an upgrade option.

As I've said before, seven seats is what you really want for ISS crew change-out. Six space station crew plus one pilot. More to the point, we will no longer need to rely on the good graces of the Russian government ... good graces that we're having more and more reason to doubt.

Fourth: A proper, modern "glass cockpit" instrument panel, with the most critical functions having manual back-ups. I didn't see a standby instrument cluster in that middle area, but by the time they ship the first unit I wouldn't be surprised to find one there. Standby instruments are important, people...

In any case, now we know what it'll look like. If all goes well, next year we'll find out how it flies.

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