The inside of SpaceX's Dragon V2 spaceship is the latest, greatest shiny object in the space business, but what really got me was sitting back in one of its form-hugging seats. It felt like sitting in a race car.
After Thursday night's glitzy debut of the capsule SpaceX is planning to use to send NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, VIPs and journalists got a chance to climb up a set of stairs, crouch through the hatch and check out the interior.
There's about as much room inside this Dragon as there is inside the uncrewed Dragons that are currently used to transport cargo to orbit: roughly 380 cubic feet. That's way more than the 210 cubic feet that the Apollo capsule set aside for its three astronauts during missions to the moon, or the 230 cubic feet allotted to the three-person crews in Russia's Soyuz orbital module. But the Dragon isn't built to seat just three: Seven seats are stacked inside, in rows of four and three.
Those seats aren't plush, but the leather-like upholstery did seem to hug me comfortably as I sat back where a pilot would sit. Once the spacefliers get settled, the pilot can fold down a wide control panel with four touchscreens to monitor spacecraft systems. Several portholes are set into the wall, but the touchscreens and other readouts are more likely to be what the astronauts are focusing on during launch and re-entry.
Maybe if there were six more people, extra padding and a ton of pressurized cargo in the Dragon with me, it'd feel cramped. But when I was in the bare-bones capsule by myself, the furnishings seemed spare. And that's the feeling that Elon Musk, SpaceX's billionaire founder, CEO and chief designer, is going for.
"We're aiming for something with Dragon Version 2, for the interfaces and for the overall aesthetic [to be] something that's very clean, very simple," he said as he showed off the interior.
What'll it take to put astronauts in a Dragon?
It almost sounded as if he was showing off the latest luxury car from Tesla, the electric-car company that Musk also heads. But this ride trumps Tesla: Musk estimated that the sticker price might start at around $20 million per seat, which translates to $140 million for a seven-person launch. That much money would buy 2,000 Tesla Model S sedans.
If you compare that price tag with the $70 million-plus NASA has to pay the Russians for each seat on a Soyuz capsule heading for the station, it doesn't sound so pricey.
Musk projects that crewed flights to orbit could begin in 2016, which would fall well within NASA's 2017 timetable for getting U.S.-built spaceships flying to the space station again.
So far, SpaceX has received more than $500 million in development money from NASA to get the Dragon spaceship ready to carry astronauts. The company is in the running with the Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and perhaps other commercial players to receive further funding. But even if for some reason SpaceX loses out in the NASA competition, Musk says SpaceX would "do our best to continue the development."
What's going on under the hood?
The biggest advance over the first-generation Dragon is something you wouldn't notice from the inside: an array of eight SuperDraco thrusters that could be used to guide the capsule to safety in the event of a launch emergency.
With 16,000 pounds of thrust per engine, the SuperDraco system could also help the Dragon make a retro-rocket-style landing — rather than a parachute descent and splashdown at sea, as is the case for the first-generation Dragon cargo capsule. Musk said the system would make it possible for the Dragon V2 to "land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter."
John Gardi, an engineer who's a big fan of SpaceX as well as Musk's Hyperloop mass-transit concept, picked up on another under-the-hood feature: the Dragon V2's unpressurized "trunk," which would sit beneath the pressurized crew space. The trunk can carry additional cargo to orbit, and it will also have solar panels for recharging the Dragon V2's batteries.
The version of the trunk shown in SpaceX's animation of a typical Dragon V2 flight has fins, and Gardi said that could make an important contribution if a problem comes up during launch.
"At low altitude ... the trunk's fins will help stabilize the spacecraft as it pulls away from the booster," he wrote in an email. "Even at high altitudes, the trunk will lower the center of gravity of the spacecraft so it will be less reliant on thrust vectoring from the SuperDracos."
All this talk about bucket seats, trunks and fins and interior styling makes it sound as if the commercial space industry is becoming more like the commercial auto industry. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. If SpaceX — or Boeing, Sierra Nevada, XCOR Aerospace or Virgin Galactic, for that matter — is ever looking for someone to take a test drive into space, you know who to call.
Want to take a quick spin around the Dragon V2's interior? Check out this whirlwind video tour.