The first commercial space capsule designed to shuttle astronauts into Earth's orbit was unveiled Thursday night at SpaceX's operations outside Los Angeles.
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CEO Elon Musk, the mind behind the Tesla electric automobile, described and showed off the latest version of the SpaceX Dragon, which has robotically delivered cargo to the International Space Station since 2012. The unveiling was streamed live from the company's rocket factory in Hawthorne, Calif.
Musk stood on a stage beside the craft and described its features, showing with computer animation that the craft is capable of using its thruster engines to make a precision soft landing back on Earth after returning from orbit.
"That is how a 21st-century spacecraft should land,'' Musk said. "It allows rapid reusability of the spacecraft.''
He said the new model will feature "superpowered'' versions of the previous model's engines and will be capable of docking with the space station.
Like the space shuttle it is intended to replace, the Dragon V2 can carry a crew of seven. The first manned test flight is expected in two to three years. The capsule will be launched atop the company's Falcon 9 rocket, as will the unmanned version.
The V2 (Version 2) has one major distinction that sets apart from the shuttle and other spacecraft built by NASA: it features thruster engines to steer the craft to safety during a launch emergency. The small rockets could also be used to land the capsule on Earth, the moon, another planet or celestial body.
NASA has provided money to help SpaceX develop the manned Dragon capsule. The space agency said it hopes to have a U.S.-made astronaut taxi ready by 2017.
Two other companies, Sierra Nevada and Boeing, are also developing possible replacements for the space shuttle, which was retired in 2011 after 30 years of service.
In October, SpaceX successfully tested its Grasshopper rocket, which can take off, hover and land. The 10-story rocket rose more than a half mile before returning to the launch pad in Texas.