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Image: DragonLab
A depiction of the SpaceX DragonLab - a free-flying, fully-recoverable, reusable spacecraft capable of hosting pressurized and unpressurized payloads.
updated 11/7/2008 6:32:12 PM ET 2008-11-07T23:32:12

Space Exploration Technologies held an invitation-only meeting at its Hawthorne, Calif.-based headquarters on Friday for potential customers of its new DragonLab, a free-flying version of the reusable Dragon capsule the company is building for international space station resupply missions.

"We're committed to flying it," Max Vozoff, SpaceX's Dragon product manager, said in an Oct. 29 interview here. Vozoff said SpaceX's message to attendees of the DragonLab user conference would be pretty straightforward: "It's a commercial mission flying with or without you," he said. "There are slots available if you want to come along."

Between 40 and 50 scientists, engineers and other technical experts from government, industry and academia were expected to attend and learn about DragonLab during Friday's event.

So far, SpaceX has lined up at least one customer for the first DragonLab flight planned for 2010. Although Vozoff would not tell Space News anything about its anchor customer, SpaceX told other space officials here that it had signed up a classified U.S. government customer for DragonLab's debut.

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Designed to launch atop the Falcon 9 rocket SpaceX has in development for a planned 2009 debut, the DragonLab can accommodate up to 13,227 pounds (6,000 kilograms) of pressurized and unpressurized upmass and up to 6,613 pounds (3,000 kilograms) of downmass, according to a SpaceX specifications sheet. DragonLab is designed for a water recovery off the California coast.

Vozoff said DragonLab missions could last from one week to two years, depending on customer interest. After its initial flight, SpaceX hopes to fly DragonLab once or twice a year.

SpaceX has just begun to brief prospective customers on DragonLab, with Vozoff making recent visits to NASA's Ames Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Johnson Space Center to discuss the concept and assess interest. He said SpaceX also is seeing substantial interest in DragonLab from the U.S. Defense Department.

Differences between DragonLab and the reusable capsule SpaceX is vying to sell to NASA for cargo missions and eventually crewed flights are minor, according to Vozoff, and have mainly to do with internal outfitting and onboard power.

Slideshow: Month in Space In addition to the seven to 10 cubic meters of pressurized space available inside the Dragon's recoverable main capsule, the proposed configuration includes an unpressurized trunk offering 14 cubic meters of payload capacity to experiments that need not be returned. Vozoff said DragonLab is well suited "for people who have flown or want to fly mid-deck locker experiments" on the space shuttle or space station.

SpaceX is confident that there is a market for DragonLab. Vozoff cited an Oct. 16 presentation to the NASA Advisory Council by NASA's assistant associate administrator for the international space station, Mark Uhran, to back up his claim that a biotech breakthrough aboard the station could touch off a "gold rush" in microgravity research that SpaceX, with DragonLab, would be well positioned to capitalize on.

SpaceX has yet to demonstrate a successful Falcon 9 flight. The company had its first launch success in late September with an apparently flawless flight of the much smaller Falcon 1. The company is on track to deliver its first Falcon 9 to Cape Canaveral, Fla., early next year for its maiden launch on behalf of an unnamed U.S. government customer.

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