This past week, SpaceX released a video of its Dragon 2 spacecraft successfully performing a five-second hover test at the company's rocket facility in McGregor, Texas. This was another milestone for the company as it works toward completing NASA certification of the new spacecraft, which will replace the existing version of Dragon.
SpaceX has been sending supplies to the International Space Station using the original Dragon capsule for a few years now, and the company just recently won a new contract to extend that business into the 2020s. But Elon Musk's space company also won a contract from NASA to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS, which meant building a new version that was capable of supporting a crew.
Another important step in the books
Though the video was published this week, the test was performed back in November. It shows a Dragon 2 hanging above one of the company's launchpads, and when the engines fire, the spacecraft briefly hovers under its own power. The company wants to eventually use these engines to land the spacecraft on solid ground following reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.
The video gives us a glimpse of how that might look, with eight "SuperDraco" engines firing on the sides of the capsule. Together, those generate a total of 33,000 pounds of thrust. These are the same engines that can eject the Dragon 2 capsule away from the launchpad if there’s an emergency during liftoff. (SpaceX tested this in May of last year.)
SpaceX will have to use parachutes for the NASA crew return missions, at least initially. NASA is planning to land its own crewed spacecraft — Orion — in the ocean, and the agency wants SpaceX to do the same with the crewed Dragon capsule. Returning astronauts haven't landed in the ocean in 40 years; the most recent return missions from the ISS, performed by Russia's space agency, use parachutes to settle the Soyuz spacecraft down in a field in Kazakhstan. Before that, the Space Shuttle program brought astronauts back to NASA airstrips.
Astronauts haven't landed in the ocean in 40 years
With enough testing, SpaceX could eventually convince NASA to let the company use the SuperDraco engines to land the spacecraft on solid ground, which would make it much easier to retrieve the Earth-bound astronauts. But SpaceX also plans to someday use Dragon 2 in its own private space missions, so regardless of what NASA decides, the company will continue to work on thrust-powered descent. Considering the company was able to use reverse thrust to land an entire rocket stage at Cape Canaveral (and has come extremely close to landing one on a platform in the ocean), landing a spacecraft in a couple of years seems totally possible.
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