SpaceX shows Washington its non-Russian “trampoline” into orbit

Evil genius?
Evil genius?
Image: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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The US needs Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to send astronauts to the International Space Station. So when Americans threatened to stop importing Russian rocket engines due to the country’s Ukrainian incursion, Russia’s defense czar, Dmitry Rogozin, taunted them with the suggestion that NASA might as well invest in trampolines to get into orbit:

Last night, that trampoline was unveiled to American politicians in Washington, DC. SpaceX’s new Dragon II spacecraft and its lead designer, CEO Elon Musk, sought to impress the members of Congress who will decide whether the vessel (and the company) will shoot for the stars or burn up in the atmosphere. Standing about 20 feet (6.1 meters) tall in a humid outdoor tent—the organizers couldn’t find a venue with a door big enough—the Dragon II loomed over the crowd of politicos below.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and US Senator Bill Nelson like this spacecraft.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and US Senator Bill Nelson like this spacecraft.
Image: Quartz/Tim Fernholz

Reporters swarmed around Musk to ask him about a different fight he is having in Washington: a lawsuit demanding open competition for military satellite launch contracts against the incumbent, United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint venture. It was this lawsuit that spurred the battle over Russian rocket engines, which ULA’s rockets use.

That battle will play out in the courts (and in public opinion), but the event showed that even though SpaceX is, in Musk’s own words, an “up-and-comer,” it boasts substantial political leverage of its own. And a great draw—who doesn’t want to climb into a spacecraft, especially one that is arguably the most advanced ever built? Throughout the night, members of Congress scrambled in and out of the hatch to experience a cockpit that has more in common with Apple’s products than Boeing’s:

Elon Musk in the cockpit of the Dragon II.
Elon Musk in the cockpit of the Dragon II.
Image: SpaceX

You can get a flavor of their experience by watching this video of Musk showing off the Dragon II last week; he’s particularly proud that it will be able to land vertically with the precision of a helicopter (jump to about 6:00 in the video for a simulation).

These Congress members have been paying for the Dragon II for a while; it is the product of a NASA program funding three companies competing to replace the mothballed Space Shuttle program and its Russian alternative. SpaceX, however, is the furthest along in testing: The new vehicle is based on a design that has already delivered supplies to the ISS autonomously several times. Its competitors at Boeing and the Sierra Nevada Corporation still haven’t gotten their prototypes off the ground.

Part of the reason for this slowdown is that Congress has cut funding for the commercial crew program—also known, less glamorously, as the “space taxi” project—several times recently in the wake of the financial crisis. That has delayed the first launches to 2017, but Musk told Quartz that he believes the Dragon II will be ready to fly in 2015, after some more testing of its ability to safely abort a flight after a problematic launch.

With the US looking to show it’s still doing better than Russia, it might be tempting for members of Congress to up the funding and put the Dragon II to work immediately. But that would entail picking SpaceX before its rivals are ready to compete—exactly what the company is fighting against in the military satellite program, where it is working to complete its certification as a potential Air Force contractor. Rushing the US back into space would likely entail increasing funding to all three competitors so that the final choice doesn’t wind up becoming another aerospace monopoly.