The SpaceX Dragon V2 Design Was Inspired By A 60s Space Movie

Yesterday, potential supervillain Elon Musk unveiled the new manned spacecraft from SpaceX, the Dragon V2. It's a large-crew capacity capsule, and will be the first of its kind to actually fly. This fundamental idea was inspired by a 60s space thriller that was so awful MST3K lampooned it. But it brought up some good points.

Now, SpaceX will likely deny this, and they're sort of right — they likely didn't factor in the movie, 1969's Marooned, directly into their design for the capsule, but NASA did. Let me explain.

The Dragon V2 is a capsule-type of spacecraft. That means it's roughly gumdrop-shaped, and launches at the nose of a rocket vertically and re-enters with its large blunt end smacking into the atmosphere, slowing it down, creating friction and heat. It's got a heat shield on that blunt end, and can land with parachutes, or, unique to the Dragon, via soft-landing rockets and legs.

This basic capsule design has been used since the dawn of manned spacecraft. Mercury, Gemini, the Soyuz return module, Apollo, they all used it — and one of the main traits of these capsules is that they hold no more than three.

The SpaceX Dragon V2 Design Was Inspired By A 60s Space Movie

The Dragon V2 can hold up to seven. That's a very big differentiator from previous generations of capsules. So it's worth looking at who first proposed the idea of a high-crew-capacity capsule, and why.

The who is NASA, and the why is, amazingly, the movie Marooned. Marooned was about an Apollo mission that went wrong, stranding the three astronauts (in a capsule named, fittingly for Elon Musk, Ironman One) in space. In a way, it sort of predicted what happened with the Apollo 13 mission a couple years later.

In the movie, NASA has to really scramble to find a spacecraft to rescue the astronauts, since the Apollo capsules could only hold three, and at least one (more likely two) astronauts would be needed to pilot it.

The SpaceX Dragon V2 Design Was Inspired By A 60s Space Movie

The movie comes up with its own novel, fictitious solutions, but the whole thing was just realistic enough to freak NASA out and spur them into coming up with some sort of plan for a rescue vehicle. At the time, NASA was planning America's first space station, Skylab, which would use Apollo capsules to ferry the crews back and forth, offering all kinds of new risks of the sorts shown in the movie.

So, scared into action by the film, NASA set out to develop a special rescue version of the Apollo spacecraft they could keep on standby during the Skylab missions. The biggest change was to cram at least five astronauts in the capsule — two to fly it there and back, and three couches for the stranded crew.

To do this, they developed a novel two-tiered suspended seating system — some versions were designed to hold up to six (two rows of three) but the one actually built held five — three in the conventional positions, and two extra crew couches, inverted from the others, in a second row at the back.

The SpaceX Dragon V2 Design Was Inspired By A 60s Space Movie

NASA started to prepare one of these Apollo-based Skylab Rescue Vehicles when an issue with the Skylab 3 mission happened in 1973, but luckily the problem was resolved and a rescue wasn't needed.

The idea was even resurrected when NASA was looking for a suitable emergency crew return vehicle for the ISS — a six-seat modified Apollo capsule was proposed to be carried to the station in the cargo bay of the shuttle.

The Apollo had just barely enough space to do this, and the key was the staggered, stadium-type seating configuration — which the Dragon V2 uses as well. So, even if the SpaceX designers never watched Marooned, I can all but guarantee they seriously studied NASA's solutions in developing their high-capacity Apollo capsules.

So, sure, it's inspired indirectly, but the whole idea of the small, yet high-capacity capsule — which the Dragon V2 certainly is — wouldn't have existed at all had Gene Hackman not proven to be such a convincing doomed astronaut.