Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk unveiled the SpaceX Dragon V2 earlier today (launch pad style countdown and all) in his bid to win a lucrative contract to transport American astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (h/t Brid-Aine Parnell at The Register).

SpaceX Dragon V2

Space X wants Dragon V2 to be the ISS space taxi

Unlike the expendable Soyuz rockets that America is currently using (courtesy of Russia, one of the motivations behind finding a homegrown solution) the SpaceX Dragon V2 is meant to be reusable. The landing system is meant to allow the capsule to land anywhere on the planet with the accuracy of a helicopter and be ready for another launch almost immediately.

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

SpaceX is competing with Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp for the NASA contract, with a final decision expected to come down later this year.

Space shuttle program shows that reusable doesn’t always mean cheap

While a reusable spacecraft sounds like a good deal, the space shuttle program was an overpriced failure by most standards. Shuttle launches were originally supposed to cost around $10.5 million apiece. That price was later revised up to $50 million but actually came in around $450 million, and the shuttles never managed ten launches in a single year even though they were supposed to make five or six trips per month.

Building a rocket that can survive the heat and stress of re-entry relatively unscathed is simply not an easy task, and underestimating the difficulty has already proven to be both difficult and dangerous. The ISS might not have been possible without the shuttle program, but the Hubble telescope and nearly every other major NASA project would have been, and there’s no telling what else might have been accomplished with that money. (It’s interesting that the project is repeatedly referred to as a space taxi, creating a mental distinction from the space shuttle program that it replaces).

If the SpaceX Dragon V2 works as planned, then it will make the ISS and space travel in general more affordable, opening the door to more ambitious plans. Musk has been clear since the founding of SpaceX that his ultimate goal is to establish a colony on Mars. If he has developed spacecraft that can move between planets reliably and at a reasonable cost that dream will start to sound a lot more realistic.