Last night SpaceX, the private spaceflight company founded by PayPal and Tesla's Elon Musk, unveiled its new Dragon capsule. A previous version of this capsule is already zipping back and forth between Earth and the International Space Station (ISS) delivering cargo and supplies—there have been three successful missions since 2012. The Dragon V2 is outfitted with seven seats and the other bells and whistles necessary for manned flight.
The interior is pretty slick and the touchscreen controls look downright modern!
SpaceX says it will start test flights in 2016. Which is just in the nick of time: The U.S. currently has a deal with Russia to use their Soyuz rockets to get American astronauts up to the ISS through 2017. But right now the Russians are the only game in town and at $76 million a pop, they're not exactly offering bargain airfare. What's more, testy relations between the Yanks and the Sputniks puts even that expensive, tenuous link to humanity's outpost in low Earth orbit in jeopardy.
In addition to looking pretty awesome, the Dragon V2 and its Falcon rockets are designed to be maximally reusable. The new Dragon capsule has thrusters to help with a soft landing (rather than the usual parachutes) and the early stages of the rocket will also be retrievable and reusable thanks to collapsible metallic legs. That makes turnaround time much shorter and saves cash. In other words: The private alternative for getting Americans (and perhaps anyone else who wants to buy a ticket) into low Earth orbit looks like it's going be faster, cheaper, better.
Read lots more about the private spaceflight scene in our special space issue.