- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2014

A fledgling space company has announced its plan for using a “space taxi” to shuttle NASA astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station.

SpaceX, one of three companies vying for the right to taxi astronauts into space, showcased its Dragon V2 manned spacecraft Thursday night at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.

Elon Musk, chief executive officer for SpaceX, described his space taxi as a “big leap forward in technology.” He said the Dragon V2 will have the ability to land compulsively, with the accuracy of a helicopter.

Sleek and dome shaped, the Dragon V2 has landing gear that allows it to autonomously settle itself on a variety of surfaces. The engines will be able to produce 1,600 pounds of thrust and parachutes will also be required during the landing process, Mr. Musk said.

“That is how a 21st century spaceship should land,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Musk touted his new venture on Twitter.

“Dragon V2 spaceship unveiling tonight at 7 pm California time,” he said.

Mr. Musk’s space taxi is part of a NASA Commercial Crew Program initiative to launch astronauts into low-Earth orbit via routine flights by 2017, following the demise of NASA’s shuttle program. The last NASA space shuttle returned to earth in 2011. Since then, NASA has been relying on Russia’s Soyuz capsules, which can only hold three people at a time, as a means for transporting its astronauts.

But that cooperation is dependent upon continued good relations between the countries. Amid tension over Russian military overtures in Ukraine, Moscow announced this month it would deny U.S. astronauts access to its vehicles in response to economic sanctions.

To ween itself off the dependency on Russian spacecraft, NASA has been awarding funding to companies that have the potential to fuel its space exploration needs.

To date, about 100 aerospace partners and suppliers working in 33 states to achieve NASA’s goal of putting astronauts in space via U.S. aircraft, according to NASA officials. Of that batch, three main competitors are vying for the right to carry NASA crew to the International Space Station. Those competitors are SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing.

Boeing has been working on what it refers to as a Crew Space Transportation-100, also known as the CST-100. The Boeing space taxi has a weld-less design, can be reused up to 10 times and has the ability to accommodate seven passengers or a mix of crew and cargo, according to a company fact sheet.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is creating a space taxi dubbed the Dream Chaser, which is designed to land on commercial runways, per company officials. Using a scale-model aircraft, Sierra Nevada Corp. was able to conduct numerous wind tunnel tests, according to a fact sheet. That data showed that the Dream Chaser was able to exceed expected performance standards, according to Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of the company’s space systems.

“We are on schedule to launch our first orbital flight in November of 2016, which will mark the beginning of the restoration of U.S. crew capability to low-Earth orbit,” he said.

Part of the criteria for the space taxis is that they must be able to withstand the impact of micro-meteoroids, according to a NASA officials. Although NASA does not anticipate numerous space debris impacts, designers are still expected to show their craft can survive an occasional hit, according to a NASA fact sheet.

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