Home » Space » Musk: Spacecraft Will Land Like a Helicopter

Musk: Spacecraft Will Land Like a Helicopter

by Brendan McGarry on May 30, 2014


The head of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. said his company’s new spacecraft is designed to fly from outer space to Earth and, like a helicopter, touch down safely on the ground.

“You’ll be able to land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter,” Elon Musk, chief executive officer of SpaceX, said on Thursday during an unveiling ceremony for the craft at the company’s California headquarters. “That is how a 21st century spaceship should land.”

In a brief but sleek roll-out of the so-called Dragon V2, Musk took to a stage on the factory floor to highlight the spacecraft’s next-generation technologies, including the new SuperDraco engine system that allows for propulsive landings, touch-screen controls and a more durable heat shield.

Unlike existing versions of the spacecraft that fly as unmanned cargo ships to resupply the International Space Station, the new model will be able to carry as many as seven astronauts to the orbital outpost. It’s designed to dock at the site autonomously or under piloted control — without assistance from the station’s robotic arm.

While the latest version of the Dragon will, like its predecessors, be able to deploy parachutes after re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and splash down into the ocean in an emergency, it’s primarily designed to touch down on land using the new SuperDraco engines.


The propulsion system is composed of eight SuperDraco engines installed as pairs along the module’s walls. Each is capable of producing almost 16,000 pounds of thrust, for a combined total of 120,000 pounds of axial thrust. The engine is essentially an upgraded version of the standard Draco, which produces 100 pounds of thrust for attitude control.

Apart from the convenience of landing on the ground, the new propulsion system will make the spacecraft more reusable and help to lower launch costs, Musk said.

“You can just reload propellant and fly again,” he said. “This is extremely important for revolutionizing access to space because so long as we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft we will never have true access to space. It will always be incredibly expensive.”

He added, “If aircraft were thrown away with each flight, then nobody would be able to fly.”

The engine chamber is made of Inconel, a high-performance superalloy, using a process called direct metal laser sintering, a form of 3-D printing. When the company tests the spacecraft — an unmanned mission scheduled for 2016 — it will mark the “first time that a printed rocket engine sees flight,” Musk said.

The spacecraft also features the third iteration of the company’s heat-shield technology, designed to improve re-usability by ablating less as it re-enters the atmosphere, Musk said.

Inside, the spacecraft is designed to have a “very clean, very simple” aesthetic, with touch-screen controls that pilots pull down from overhead and lock into place, Musk said. Manual buttons needed to perform critical functions in an emergency are located on the center console, he said.


SpaceX has a contract with NASA to resupply the space station and is competing against Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin LLC to design hardware that can eventually fly astronauts there. That may not happen until 2017, at the earliest, due in part to federal budget cuts.

The company is also trying to break into the military launch market and has sued the Air Force to open more missions to competition. It was recently accused of straining U.S.-Russia space relations by a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture that dominates the military market.

The U.S. retired its shuttle fleet in 2011 and relies on Russia for rides to space at a cost of more than $60 million per astronaut.

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{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

Rod May 30, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Great concepts – especially the re-usability of the heat resistant coating.

The engineer inside of me is curious how much fuel it would take to decelerate the spacecraft when landing if the parachute is reserved for emergencies – at 15430 mph and 200 km above the earth's surface, that is a lot of kinetic and potential energy to overcome, respectively.


majr0d May 30, 2014 at 2:47 pm

The parachute isn't optional.

If one is going to use rockets alone you also have to worry about the fuel necessary to do a constant burn and/or the G's the crew has to survive.


citanon May 30, 2014 at 5:31 pm

Probably a lot of aerodynamic braking from the capsule itself.


WulfTheSaxon May 31, 2014 at 9:17 pm

Indeed, terminal velocity should only be a couple hundred miles an hour.


hibeam May 31, 2014 at 9:51 pm

People seem to think the thing is going 17,000MPH. Its not. Its only going a few hundred miles an hour when its near the ground and it's time to turn on the braking rockets and soft land. Just like in a helicopter evidently.


Erin May 31, 2014 at 2:02 pm

Most of the kinetic and potential energy gets turned into heat and sound by friction during atmospheric reentry. When the capsule is even a few kilometers above sea level altitude it will be falling at close to terminal velocity.


Dr. Horrible May 31, 2014 at 7:00 pm

I think what's driving everyone's questions is the uncertainty about what value that terminal velocity will be, not that it will reach TV to begin with.


WulfTheSaxon May 31, 2014 at 9:26 pm

The DragonFly test vehicle has 400 gallons.


hibeam May 31, 2014 at 9:52 pm

400 Gallons? Does Obama know this? What about the Aquifer? Are they using any pipes?


Rod June 1, 2014 at 6:31 am

All, thanks for the response and input.

Based on a cursory read of Julian Allen's research on the NASA website, it seems like the reason Space X utilized the blunt shape design was to "force a buildup of a powerful bow-shape shock wave… the shape of this shock would deflect heat safely outward and away."

Coupled with the improved alloy for the heat shield, the Dragon V2 would slow down relying more on friction as opposed to the propulsion system.


andy May 30, 2014 at 12:58 pm

"It was recently accused of straining U.S.-Russia "

That is how we create JOBS here in America, OUTSOURCES AND OUTSOURCES…hah hah…


RWB123 May 30, 2014 at 1:34 pm

They pointed out a glaring vulnerability.


citanon May 30, 2014 at 4:10 pm



citanon May 30, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Makes the Russians sound like morons huffing and puffing their chests over 1980s era wares.


Mat June 1, 2014 at 5:57 pm

that 80's gear is still couple off decades ahead of Space X


gruber July 28, 2014 at 12:43 am

At least half a century ahead of SpaceX.


John Deere June 2, 2014 at 11:33 am

The Russian equipment actually dates from the 1960s.


Big-Dean May 30, 2014 at 6:59 pm

The score is Russia 35 US 21
NASA has just been benched, SpaceX is putting on his helmet to the roar and approval of the crowd….time for some football.


jamesb May 30, 2014 at 9:22 pm

Bring back Space SHIP's NOT phone booths!


Ray Anthony May 31, 2014 at 10:02 am

Go Space X. Congrats to Elon Musk. Keep innovating. Keep changing. Keep improving.



Rob C. May 31, 2014 at 12:32 pm

I hope start testing as soon they can safely, the Russians seems to be possed to no longer shuttle people to the ISS.


hip May 31, 2014 at 1:25 pm

No, it won't land LIKE a helicopter. It will land with the accuracy of a helicopter.


hibeam May 31, 2014 at 2:11 pm

The Marines will want a version with wings on it.


Manuel Lopez May 31, 2014 at 3:40 pm

They named buttons after me! Cool! Professional journalists should know the difference between Manuel and manual. Just my opinion. The article is cool otherwise


hibeam May 31, 2014 at 6:31 pm

I know Musk is a smart guy but he might want to bone up on how helicopters land. No rockets involved.


citanon June 1, 2014 at 5:22 pm

I think what Musk actually said was that it could land with the _accuracy_ of a helicopter.


Werner June 1, 2014 at 12:41 am

Rod asked the key question, which no one will answer. I will. Musk's idea is complete BS. Retro-rockets? Gee, no one thought of that before? The fuel needed is so great that it eliminates any payload that can be delivered into space. The solution is assisted launch. Google "tunnel launch" for an example.


xXTomcatXx June 2, 2014 at 9:41 am

What?! No. The SuperDraco engines are used during landing only. No payload, just crew. You're still delivering the payload into space with the much larger Merlin 1D Engines (which have the highest thrust to weight ratio of any rocket in existence). SuperDracos are just RCS engines.


John Deere June 2, 2014 at 11:43 am

The fuel for landing is also the safety system mandated by Nasa for future crewed modules. The Dragon 2 is not a VTOL craft, like McDonald Douglas' DELTA CLIPPER.


Kent June 5, 2014 at 6:15 pm

SpaceX is already developing this technology to recover their boosters in the same manner. See video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwwS4YOTbbw


citanon June 1, 2014 at 1:19 am

We answered the question. Aerodynamic braking takes the vehicle down to a manageable terminal velocity. The rockets just slows it that last bit.

The engineering (control systems, efficient variable thrust rockets for lower atmosphere conditions) for doing retrorocket controlled landings in earth's atmosphere only started getting worked out in the 90s with the MD Delta Clipper. Space X is taking it that next step. They probably hired some of the original Delta Clipper guys.

There's no magic. No BS. Just good engineering.


FTE June 1, 2014 at 2:07 am

Landing like a helicopter isn't a new idea. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotary_Rocket


J.T Kirk June 1, 2014 at 9:12 am

Seems like a lot of fuel will be need to slow down land that thing,prepositioning of fuel pods in space I presume is a must. A


xXTomcatXx June 2, 2014 at 9:43 am

Different fuel altogether. The fuel for RCS engines wouldn't be used until landing. No need to keep stores in space.


Meinc June 1, 2014 at 8:21 pm

SpaceX, this is old news. The Russians have been landing their spacecraft like this since the start of their space program.


LeoC June 2, 2014 at 9:11 am

The Russian's Soyuz land by parachute in the deserts of Kazakhstan. The descent module lands within a large target zone with a recovery team waiting. I would never consider that landing with the precision of a helicopter.


Dfens June 2, 2014 at 10:48 am

Plus the Soyuz basically crash lands onto the ground. The parachute slows them down to something like 35 miles per hour. The seats in the capsule are mounted via energy absorbing crushable mounts. The capsule is usually somewhat out of shape due to the impact, but the occupants are ok due to the give in the seat mounting hardware.


Dfens June 2, 2014 at 11:16 pm

I guess they do use some retro rockets now to hit at a walking speed.


Tom Billings June 2, 2014 at 8:29 pm

The Soviets designed the Soyuz to land using 3 systems in series. The first was the heat shield, that dissipated most of the kinetic energy by shock waves and boiling the some of the shield away, then parachutes cut most of the rest of the velocity. Only at the very end was a short time braking rocket turned on to allow a "thump down" that did not quite harm the cosmonauts.

This was needed because parachutes are unpredictable in their final velocity, because of variations in air pressure , down drafts, up drafts, and wind speed. A down draft with only a parachute landing could have killed cosmonauts, …and when Komarov's capsule did not stop spinning and tangled his chute that is just what happened. Water landings saved us from this problem , but Russia has fewer all weather ports and lots more land. With the original Russian Vostok series, the pilot parachuted out of the capsule before landing to avoid this.

SpaceX has a system that manages both where and how fast they touch down, with no "thump down". This allows fast turnaround and reuse of the capsule, within 24 hours. The parachutes are only for emergencies in which the SuperDracos don't work for any reason.


Tom Billings June 2, 2014 at 8:58 pm

"The Soviets designed the Soyuz "

Sorry, …I should have said Voshkod, instead of Soyuz.


Isoroku Yamamoto June 2, 2014 at 6:19 am

How about those exploding Tesla's!


LeoC June 2, 2014 at 9:20 am

Those "exploding Tesla's" are not dragging out Telsa's stock price. Their stock has risen 600% over the last two years and 40% year-to-date. (http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2014/06/01/tesla-motors-inc-must-first-revolutionize-an-indus.aspx)


gruber July 28, 2014 at 12:44 am

they will continue to explode, of course.


Wayne June 3, 2014 at 10:23 am

They COULD just build a space elevator, I could design it for them too and sell it at the cheap price of a few hundred thousand dollars. Plug a few reactors loaded with capacitors and you've got a semi-cheap access to space, just put a large platform at the top for shuttles or even full sized ships to dock at.


Nah June 4, 2014 at 12:28 am

Am I the only one here that can see instantly that the design is yet another example of expensive crap?


Dfens June 4, 2014 at 8:44 am

Yep. You're the only one. That should tell you something.


Ben June 6, 2014 at 12:15 am

One can see instantly that you have no sweet clue what you're talking about.

Just about everything SpaceX designs and flies is all done for about 1/4 the cost of what it takes NASA to do the same, so far. If this Dragon V2 is successful, launch costs will sink even further.


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