Musk: Spacecraft Will Land Like a Helicopter


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.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Rod

    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.

  • andy

    “It was recently accused of straining U.S.-Russia ”

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

  • citanon


  • citanon

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

    • Mat

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

    • John Deere

      The Russian equipment actually dates from the 1960s.

  • Big-Dean

    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

    Bring back Space SHIP’s NOT phone booths!

  • Ray Anthony

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


  • Rob C.

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

  • hip

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

  • hibeam

    The Marines will want a version with wings on it.

  • Manuel Lopez

    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

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

  • Werner

    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.

  • citanon

    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

    Landing like a helicopter isn’t a new idea.

  • J.T Kirk

    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

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

  • Meinc

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

  • Isoroku Yamamoto

    How about those exploding Tesla’s!

  • Wayne

    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

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

    • Dfens

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

    • Ben

      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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