Friday, May 30, 2014

SpaceX Dragon V2 Animation

SpaceX Dragon
Docking with the ISS.
SpaceX Dragon V2 Animation.

Space animations (see also this slick one about Copernicus) are all about the professional pacing and electronic background music these days, and here we have another good space animation. Elon Musk of Tesla and PayPal fame has lots of money to burn, and some of it is going into orbit and back. SpaceX is the company (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX), based in Hawthorne, California, that Musk founded back in 2002. This video shows a just-announced proposal for a human transport vehicle.

It would be very cool if this works. If we're ever going to get off this rock, something like this will be the means to do it.

SpaceX Falcon Vs. Dragon

The SpaceX Falcon line of craft is the cargo rockets. The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft is the craft designed for human transport. They complement each other. The SpaceX Falcon 9, capable of bringing 23k lbs of cargo into orbit, already has successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS). The SpaceX Falcon Heavy, with heavier payload capacity, is supposedly ready to go on its first demonstration flight very soon.

The Dragon is nowhere near the flying-into-space stage yet. It is projected to fly within "a few years." That they are only now releasing a concept video shows it is still far off, how far off nobody really can say with any certainty, it's all subject to testing and successful flights. If you are thinking, "Well, Elon Musk knows," well, perhaps, but he's been saying since about 2010 that this Dragon craft was only a few years away. Apparently, it's still a few years away. We all know how that goes. Complex, ground-breaking things often take much longer than we think or wish.

I just want to thank Mr. Musk for not naming one of the rockets "Enterprise." Yes, I loved the show too, but every other US craft these days seems to have to be called that.

SpaceX Dragon
Separation. The crew would be in the part to the right, which would return to Earth later.

How SpaceX Dragon Would Work

As you can see in the animation, this Dragon rocket would act like a VSTOL aircraft, landing on a runway by firing its jets. If it works, it would be the first spacecraft with that capability. That seems to be its most unique feature.

One has to wonder at the efficiency of this - that's a lot of fuel to do all that counter-firing - but Musk is the one with billions of dollars and the rooms-full of rocket scientists, so we'll have to see how this plays out. There has to be a lot of science behind this, perhaps some kind of passive automatic braking mechanism built into the capsule itself. That method of landing certainly would have its advantages, including not landing at sea and requiring a fleet of ships on alert, and not even requiring a runway. Theoretically, the craft could land on the White House lawn or in Yankee Stadium during the 7th Inning Stretch.

Another potential problem is the moving parts. Notice how when the craft disengages from the ISS, it has to close a front hatch. What if that got stuck or warped and didn't close properly? Hey, stranger things have happened, there's a lot of heat involved in launches and landings. That would be "not so good" for the human cargo. So, they have a lot of critical parts.

That's the thing about animations that we always have to remember - they're always precise and pretty and everything works as it should. Hatches don't be balky and not want to close, hinges don't just "break" or get misaligned, that sort of thing. Sometimes real life isn't like that, especially on, say, the 75th re-use.

The craft is designed to carry up to seven astronauts at a time. In the animation, we see the SpaceX Dragon attaching to the International Space Station, then coming back down to earth. Part of the capsule's plan is to have as few disposable parts as possible in order to keep expenses down, which is contrary to everything NASA and everyone else has done to date.

This craft can carry around 3 tons of cargo in total. It does not replace the cargo-carrying craft but rather supplements it. If this Dragon craft works within a reasonable time frame, it would come in quite handy, as the Russians say they will stop providing launch services to the ISS in 2020. The SpaceX Dragon would be a welcome replacement - if it's ready and it works. Carrying people is a lot different than carrying cargo, it's going to require quite a bit of testing to satisfy everyone that it is safe to fly.

SpaceX Dragon
Human quarters inside the Dragon.
From the youtube page:

Meet SpaceX's Dragon V2 spacecraft, the next generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to Earth orbit and beyond.


  1. Hello, sorry about this, but I feel the need to correct a number of inaccuracies in your article. Please don't take any offence.

    The Falcon series are just the rockets that launch payloads into orbit. Those payloads can be private or government satellites, or spacecraft. There have been three models of Falcon, the single-engine Falcon 1, and two versions of Falcon 9: 1.0 and 1.1. Falcon 1 was discontinued in 2009, and Falcon 9 1.0 has been superseded by the 1.1 as of late 2013. The Falcon 9 is a human-rated rocket.

    SpaceX's own line of Spacecraft are called Dragon. They function as payloads atop the Falcon 9.
    The Dragon in the above video is Dragon Version 2, but you can see the Version 1 docked to the space station at another docking port while the V2 is coming in to dock in the video.
    Dragon V1 is rated for cargo, though Musk has stated that, were a human to stowaway on board, they "would be fine", as the ship has life support systems, and the safety level would be "similar to the shuttle".
    Dragon V1 has flown to the ISS 4 times since 2010, with a fifth mission scheduled to launch in July.

    The Falcon is the launch vehicle for the Dragon, and drops back to Earth in stages without itself reaching a stable orbit. Falcon has never visited the ISS - it cannot.

    One incredibly awesome innovation SpaceX is making with Falcon 9 is the development of landing systems for the various rocket stages that are traditionally allowed to be destroyed by the elements on the return to Earth, or in the case of the upper stages, allowed to languish in orbit for weeks or decades, waiting for their orbits to decay. This means that the stages can be refueled, restacked, and flown again. Musk hopes, when all the development is finished, to be able to turn a whole rocket around within a day.
    This feature is still in the early stages, and the rockets just started sporting sexy carbon-fibre chevron-shaped landing legs as of the last ISS mission.
    That first-stage landed gently on the surface of the Atlantic, amid a storm so severe that no NASA aircraft could be on scene, and the recovery ships intended to be at the site were stuck dozens of kilometers away. The only aircraft in the area was Elon's private jet, which received garbled video from the landing rocket. A two-month long video recovery project has revealed a picture-perfect soft-landing on the ocean's surface in hellish conditions! Search "CRS-1 First Stage Landing video recovery" to find the latest and best iteration of the recovered video.

    The other thing to note is that Dragon V2, as depicted in the video, is nearly ready to fly. The video was debuted at the SpaceX press conference where they unveiled an actual flight-hardware Dragon V2, not a mock-up.
    The craft has to undergo performance and qualification testing for a couple of years before the FAA and NASA will allow humans on board, hence the wait period.
    That period will not be uneventful behind-closed-doors development, as you suggest. There will be videos of most of the tests, using a cash-test-capsule called the Dragonfly, which will look nearly identical to V2.
    To get a flavour of what the tests will be like, there are many videos on YouTube depicting the testing of the Falcon 9 first-stage landing systems with two craft called "Grasshopper", and "F9r-Dev".
    If you like the sound of a skyscraper-sized rocket hovering in the sky, jinking left and right, and then landing on a dime, seek those out, they look like CGI, but they are gloriously real!

  2. I had to break my message in two because I suffer from verbal diarrhoea!

    Part 2:

    Aside from understandable misconstuances, you've got a great article here. I love CGI, so it's heartening to read the opinions of someone in that field on SpaceX's sexy animations.

    Sorry for gushing, but I'm totally blown away by SpaceX's drive and ambition. They're not in this simply to make a buck - their goal is to ensure the future of humanity, by "backing up the biosphere", as Musk puts it, by founding a colony on Mars.

    To that end, they have a spacecraft in development called the MCT - the Mars Colonial Transporter, which will be lofted on the largest rocket ever built, the BFR (I'll let you figure out that acronym). The MCT will carry 100 humans, in an internal volume 100 times the size of an SUV, to Mars, land, drop them off, extract fuel from the Martian atmosphere, take off, and return to Earth to pick up a fresh load of colonists.
    The ambition is insane, but if anyone can do it, SpaceX can. I wait with bated breath for every new announcement from Hawthorne.

  3. Thank you for the clarifications. I probably shouldn't venture into explanations as I did with this animation, that isn't my field. My goal is to present the best animations I can find on a variety of topics and discuss them a bit. I'm not a rocket scientist and make no claims in that field. You've set forth a detailed presentation that should send anyone interested in the right direction for further study. I apologize for misunderstanding the nomenclature. Thanks for pointing out some things in the animation I did not notice, too.

    BFR - Big F'in' Rocket? LOL, glad someone at the company has a sense of humor.

    1. No apology necessary, I relish any opportunity to wax lyrical about SpaceX - I hope you don't feel bad about it!

      And yeah, BFR - I think officially, they'd claim it's "Big Falcon Rocket", but I think we all know what they were going for (they haven't gone on record what it stands for).

      As for sense of humour, the Dragon is so called because, when Elon Musk explained his ambitions to investors in the early days of the company, they said he must have been smoking something - so he named the spaceship he was designing "Puff The Magic Dragon", which quickly became just Dragon.

      Falcon 9 is so called because Elon is a Star Wars fan, and his favourite ship in those films is the Millenium Falcon.