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SpaceX unveils Dragon V2, its first manned spacecraft

One of the new spacecraft's advantages is its ability to be reused after a soft landing and its propellants are reloaded, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says.

Elon Musk and Dragon V2
Elon Musk unveils the Dragon V2 Tim Stevens/CNET

HAWTHORNE, Calif. -- After years of development, SpaceX gave the public its first look Thursday at Dragon V2, a manned spacecraft it hopes will one day taxi astronauts to the International Space Station.

The spacecraft, the company's first designed to be piloted onboard, was unveiled by SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk during an event at the company's rocket factory here in Southern California. Similar in design to the company's robotic Dragon spacecraft that has made three resupply missions to deliver equipment and supplies to the ISS since 2012, Dragon V2 is intended to be flown by a crew of seven in a low-Earth orbit.

SpaceX is one of several commercial companies vying for NASA's favor as the US space agency moves deeper into its post-space shuttle era and embraces partners from the private sector. Also working on spacecraft designs for trips to and from the ISS under NASA's Commercial Crew Program are aerospace giant Boeing, with its CST-100 capsule, and the much smaller Sierra Nevada, with its shuttle-like Dream Chaser lifting-body vehicle.

The Dragon V2 is designed to "land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter," Musk said before unveiling the spacecraft with a countdown and an animation video showing it undocking from the space station and returning to Earth with a pinpoint propulsive ground landing. The spacecraft is capable of docking with the space station autonomously or under pilot without the aid of the station arm, which is necessary for docking under the current version.

One of the advantages of the spacecraft's design trumpeted by Musk during the presentation was its ability to be rapidly reused, up to 10 times before needing servicing. After a soft, propulsive landing, propellants can be reloaded and the spacecraft ready to fly again, he said.

SpaceX's Dragon V2 making a landing. SpaceX

"As long as we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft, we will never have true access to space," Musk said, likening the situation to throwing away passenger jets after each flight. "It will always be incredibly expensive."

Musk said it still retains the parachutes of the previous model but will only deploy those chutes if the spacecraft detects an anomaly with the engines or the propulsion system before landing. The spacecraft can still land safely even if it loses two of its engines, Musk said.

These engines are called SuperDraco and are more than 160 times more powerful than the Draco engines found in the current version of Dragon, allowing them to produce 16,400 foot pounds of thrust. In a departure from the norm, their combustion chambers are 3D printed using a technique called direct metal laser sintering, which uses lasers to accurately create complex metal structures out of metal powder layer by layer.

Video of the presentation: