With the retirement of NASA's Space Shuttle program, American astronauts lost their homegrown ride to space. To get to the International Space Station, astronauts have been required to ride—at $71 million a shot—aboard Russian rockets. But the recent political turmoil in Ukraine has caused a falling out between the two great spacefaring nations, and earlier in the month, Russia's deputy prime minister threatened to stop shuttling American astronauts to orbit.
Political turmoil aside, having a home-made way to space is much preferred. Fortunately, SpaceX, the private spaceflight company founded by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, has just unveiled the Dragon V2, the company's first spacecraft designed to carry people to space.
SpaceX has built a reputation for itself, having already conducted four supply missions to the ISS. The Dragon V2 won't be ready to actually carry people to space for another few years, but its existence is an important step towards American space independence.
Aside from the political issues, the Dragon V2 will have a number of marked improvements over the Russian Soyuz. Unlike the Soyuz capsule, which is a one-shot deal and brings astronauts back to Earth by effectively crash-landing on the surface, the Dragon V2 will be able to better control its descent and to be quickly refitted for relaunch, says CNN.
One big upgrade from earlier models is that Dragon V2 will be reusable, which will cut down on costs and open up opportunities for humans to explore. Thanks to propulsion and other technology to slow its re-entry into Earth's orbit and control its descent, Musk said the spacecraft should be able to land most anywhere much like a helicopter.
Having a reuseable vehicle, as the Space Shuttle was, should help bring the costs of spaceflight down, increasing access to space, Musk told the Associated Press:
"You can just reload, propel it and fly again," Musk said. "This is extremely important for revolutionizing access to space because as long as we continue to throw away rockets and space crafts, we will never truly have access to space. It'll always be incredibly expensive."
"If an aircraft is thrown away with each flight, nobody will be able to fly or very few (can)," he said. "The same is true with rockets and spacecraft."
Aside from all that, the Dragon V2 has another thing going for it: It sure is shiny.