HAWTHORNE (AP) — Billionaire Elon Musk took the wraps Thursday off a new spacecraft designed to ferry up to seven astronauts to the International Space Station.
The unveiling of the cone-headed craft dubbed Dragon V2 took place at the Southern California headquarters of Musk’s company, SpaceX.
Musk calls the new spacecraft a big leap forward in technology.
SpaceX is one of several private companies competing to build “space taxis” for NASA to replace the retired space shuttle fleet. It previously flew four cargo missions to the space station, delivering food and supplies.
NASA has been relying on Russian Soyuz rockets to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit until a commercial spacecraft is ready to take over the task.
Since the shuttle fleet retired in 2011, NASA has depended on Russian rockets to transport astronauts to orbit and back, paying nearly $71 million per seat. The space agency has said it wants U.S. companies to fill the void by 2017 and has doled out seed money to spur innovation.
SpaceX — short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — has made four cargo runs to the giant orbiting outpost some 200 miles above Earth. Just last month, its Dragon capsule splashed into the Pacific, returning nearly 2 tons of science experiments and old equipment.
Companies competing for the right to ferry station astronauts need to design a spacecraft that can seat a crew of four or more and be equipped with life support systems and an escape hatch in case of emergency. SpaceX has said it’s designing a seven-seat spacecraft.
SpaceX and longtime NASA contractor Boeing Co. are “more or less neck and neck” in the competition, but there’s a long way to go before astronauts can rocket out of the atmosphere on private spacecraft, said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
Logsdon said progress by private companies is slower than anticipated mainly because Congress has not fully funded NASA’s budget request for the effort. He said it’s important for the U.S. to wean its reliance on Russia given the political tension over the annexation of Crimea.
“It’s essential to have our own capability to transport people to space,” he said. “This is an important step in that direction.”
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