LOS ANGELES - A sleek, white gumdrop-shaped space capsule that aims to carry up to seven astronauts to the International Space Station and return to land anywhere on Earth was unveiled Thursday by SpaceX.
The Dragon V2, short for version two, is the first attempt by a private company to restore Americans' ability to send people to the orbiting space station in the wake of the space shuttle programme's retirement in 2011.
SpaceX is competing with other companies - including Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin - to be the first commercial outfit to take astronauts to space, possibly as early as 2017.
Until then, the world's astronauts must rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft at a cost of $70 million per seat.
The Dragon V2 "is really a big leap forward in technology," said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in Hawthorne, California where the new model was shown to a jam-packed press conference.
The shiny Dragon V2 sat on a white stage floor, as a scorched Dragon cargo capsule was suspended above, bearing the blackened markings of a capsule that had returned to Earth from orbit.
SpaceX's Dragon capsule in 2012 became the first private spacecraft to carry supplies to the ISS and back.
Since then, Orbital Sciences has followed with its Cygnus, a capsule shaped like a beer keg that can carry supplies to the space station but burns upon re-entry to Earth's atmosphere.
Musk touted the reusability of the Dragon and said a key feature of the Dragon V2 is that it will be able to "land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter." The Internet entrepreneur and billionaire co-founder of PayPal did not say when the Dragon V2's first test flight would take place.
Ever since the US space shuttle programme ended in 2011, the world's astronauts have depended on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to reach the ISS, an orbiting outpost built and maintained by more than a dozen countries.
SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin have all received millions of dollars in NASA funds to help them develop next-generation spacecraft that will someday carry astronauts to space.
SpaceX has said its crew capsule may be able to reach the ISS with astronauts aboard by 2017.
Meanwhile, NASA says it is focusing on building a new deep space capsule that could take humans to Mars by the 2030s.