Photograph by Michael Kelley
Last March a slender, white, 70-foot rocket tenderly crafted at Space Exploration Technologies in El Segundo lifted off from its pad on Omelek Island, a sandy, scrub-covered landmass in the Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands. As the engines fired, water poured into the flame pit beneath it, liberating clouds of steam. Space enthusiasts throughout the world fixed on their computer screens, watching a live feed of the rocket, called Falcon 1, hurtling skyward. With the beach dwindling below it, the first stage finished its burn and fell away. About three minutes into the flight, the second-stage engine ignited.
All launches command attention, but this one commanded more than usual. Not because it was a gigantic booster lifting a planetary probe, but because it wasn’t. Compared with that sort of vehicle, it was downright scrawny—more hummingbird than falcon—with a mere two stages instead of three or four. Riding on it, however, was something very big: a concept that could revolutionize the space business, a rocket small and cost efficient enough to give more people access to space. Whereas a comparable vehicle, like, say, Orbital Sciences’ Pegasus booster, can place a small satellite in low Earth orbit for about $25 million, the plucky Falcon 1 can do it for $7 million.
That is what Elon Musk is counting on, at least. Musk is the 36-year-old entrepreneur who started Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. He made his millions—about 300 of them—in 2002, when PayPal, the Web-based banking system he cofounded, was sold for $1.5 billion to eBay. Musk’s Falcon 1, along with its still-gestating sibling, Falcon 9, is conceived as a lean, no-frills way to get objects—and, ultimately, people—into orbit. After all, once you reach orbit, you are—to cite Robert A. Heinlein—“halfway to anywhere.”
Musk holds a key to the dreams and hopes of an increasing number of aspiring space colonists—adherents to the gospel of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Heinlein. Many are engineers in the Southern California aerospace industry who lost faith in NASA in 1972, when the last moon flight occurred and the agency de-emphasized human exploration. Forget that the Apollo program was canceled partly for safety reasons: The final crew members narrowly escaped a solar storm whose radiation would have killed them. With the ardor one associates with televangelists, the would-be colonists bucked the zeitgeist, resolute in their commitment to the high frontier.
Before 2000, the biggest obstacle to privately bankrolled space ventures was the “giggle factor,” a perception that such missions were so pricey that only the U.S. government—or the Vatican or the mob—could afford them. But the dot-com boom made sci-fi-loving boys into Medici princes, able to fund the religion of planetary travel, just as their Renaissance counterparts funded towering edifices dedicated to the glory of God. To a degree, the space colonization movement is an outgrowth of the religious utopias that sprang up in 19th-century America. As did members of the utopian sects before them, the space advocacy groups seek an oasis apart from this imperfect world. But whereas such 19th-century communities as the Oneida and Brook Farm experimented with socialism, the space crowd is fiercely capitalist.
It is also politically libertarian, embracing a philosophy that jibes nicely with Silicon Valley’s allergy to regulation. Both its leading light and its mascot is Burt Rutan, the swashbuckling eccentric with muttonchop whiskers who designed SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed passenger craft to reach the edge of space two times in a fortnight. For this accomplishment Rutan and his backer, Paul G. Allen, the Microsoft billionaire, were awarded the Ansari X-Prize in October 2004. (The X-Prize was established in 1995 to bestow a $10 million purse to the first privately funded passenger vehicle that could reach an altitude of 62 miles twice in two weeks.) Rutan never wavered from his faith in private rocketry, which took root when many of the dot-com space cadets were still in Pampers. He also lived his convictions: A brilliant engineer, he could easily have had an important career at NASA. But he chose independence.
It’s tempting to characterize Musk as the tortoise, Rutan as the hare—except that the private space race is becoming as crowded as the skies over LAX. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon.com billionaire, and John Carmack, the inventor of the video games Quake and Doom, are also elbowing their way to the front. Indeed, with the exception of Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, a suborbital tourist line that will fly Rutan’s SpaceShipTwo, and Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas mogul who wishes to expand his hotel empire to low Earth orbit, most of the contestants have dot-com ties. What sets Musk apart is his focus on the long-term goal: colonization. He isn’t contriving some flashy thrill ride to take rich people to the edge of space. If his rockets perform like Thoroughbreds, that’s great. But they are intended to be workhorses: unassuming, reliable, and strong enough to propel a Conestoga to a new world.
This is why the dreams, hopes, and eyes of all the would-be space explorers were focused on Falcon 1 last March. They were on it midway through its second-stage burn, when it began to quiver. They were on it when the quiver became a wobble. And they were on it when it stopped sending telemetry and SpaceX cut the Webcast.
“We in the Washington, D.C., office are celebrating with champagne,” said Gwynne Shotwell, Musk’s vice president of business development. One suspected that Shotwell—a seasoned engineer—might be in shock, or just relieved that the rocket had not blown up instantly, as it did the last time SpaceX tried to launch. “We don’t have any information from the launch control center,” she qualified, but liftoff, stage separation, and second-stage ignition looked A-OK.
What about the wobbling?
“Regardless,” she said. “We’re thrilled here.”
Falcon 1’s second-stage engine, however, had flamed out before the rocket gained enough speed to reach orbit. Musk continued in Shotwell’s upbeat vein. The Pentagon, he explained, had contracted for a demonstration of Falcon 1, not a taxi to low Earth orbit, and the Pentagon had seen what it needed to see. Never mind that little orbital thing. “The outcome was great,” he wrote online.
This ticked off some alternative space types.
“Reminds me of some of the early days of missile flight testing,” wrote email@example.com on a mailing list of a Southern California chapter of the National Space Society. “The Air Force would declare anything that flew far enough to get out of sight of the reporters on the beach a success.”
“Does seem like the objective of an orbital launch is to get into orbit, unless you declare otherwise in advance,” added firstname.lastname@example.org.
But the grumblers were not ticked off for long. This chapter of the society, after all, calls itself OASIS, the Organization for the Advancement of Space Industrialization and Settlement. In many ways, they want what Musk wants even more than he does. “I have great admiration for Elon Musk,” wrote email@example.com. “He is pushing space technology to a new frontier, where it needs to go.”
I first met Musk in early 2003, shortly after he set up SpaceX on a low-slung industrial stretch of El Segundo whose other occupants include Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. El Segundo is also home to the Los Angeles Air Force Base and its Space and Missiles Center. Ever since the region’s first airplane factory was built in Downey in the 1920s, the Greater South Bay area has been a hub for aircraft manufacturers. This concentration of industry was critical to Musk. Not only could he draw upon local vendors for specialized parts, but he could raid the big boys’ brain trusts—securing, among others, propulsion expert Tom Mueller from TRW.
Musk found Mueller at an event sponsored by the Reaction Research Society, an amateur rocketry group. Garage rocketeers, Musk soon learned, live to futz with rockets. They love shepherding designs from concept to blastoff. At a big company, hyperspecialization precludes this. But at SpaceX, tinkerers such as Mueller could futz without sacrificing their families’ medical insurance. “Everybody owns stock in the company,” Mueller said. “Everybody touches the rocket and sees what’s being built.”
Humble was not the first word that came to mind when I shook Musk’s hand. He drops his topmost aim into conversation the way that other people drop, say, having gone to Harvard; and his aim, quite simply, is to save humanity from extinction. “When I got out of college, I thought there were three areas that would change the world,” he told me. “One was the Internet, the other was changing from a hydrocarbon-based society to being solar electric, and the third was space—becoming a space-faring civilization.”
In 1995, Musk had started grad school in applied physics and materials science at Stanford University but was sidetracked by the dot-coms popping up around him. The world was acquiring a nervous system, and the Bay Area was its center. Itching to take part, Musk devised software to permit quaint, paper-based information outlets—newspapers—to display their content on the Web. He called his brainchild Zip2 and with his brother founded a firm to make it. Three years later Compaq bought Zip2 for $307 million, some of which helped capitalize X.com, the Web-based money transfer system that became PayPal.
George Zachary, the venture capitalist whose company initially financed Zip2, remembers two things about the young Musk: his brilliance and his hunger. “When he showed up at my office nine, ten years ago, he was driving a beat-up old car with the exhaust pipe scraping the ground,” Zachary said. After Zip2 took off—“returning 10 or 20 times our capital in a very short period of time”—Musk was driving a million-dollar McLaren.
From his Web experience Musk learned the value of timing. This is why he didn’t plunge headfirst into renewable energy after selling PayPal. In 2002, oil remained too cheap to make people seek an alternative; the price would have to hurt. But “Eliminate greenhouse gases” was on his to-do list. So, as a sideline, he invested in Solar City, which is positioned as the Dell computer of solar energy. It doesn’t make solar panels—just as Dell doesn’t manufacture computer components. It assembles existing parts and delivers them to the consumer. He also invested in Tesla Motors, which this summer began marketing a high-performance electric roadster, sort of a rechargeable McLaren. Musk expects to take delivery of his own soon.
Still, to make a significant difference in the world, Musk would have to conquer space. By himself. Then drag the rest of us lumpen hominids with him. “Forever remaining only on Earth,” he said to me, is “tantamount to rolling the dice on annihilation, not to mention a bit boring. I think it would be a wise insurance policy to spend, say, 0.1 percent of our resources on backing up the biosphere by establishing life on Mars, the only other planet in our solar system where that is within reach, albeit still incredibly difficult.” It isn’t as if Musk anticipates some particular disaster—nuclear holocaust or asteroid impact or mass reproductive impairment. He personifies the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. And he does so competitively. One gets the sense that Musk would be annoyed if someone else saved humanity first.
If Musk finds stewardship of the human species sobering, he doesn’t show it. He makes jokes constantly at his own expense, which blunts what his competitors call “Muskitude,” defined as “a supercilious attitude caused by having made too much money too young.” Secondary definitions include “stubbornness,” “glory hogging,” and “a tendency to micromanage.” Near the front door of SpaceX, Musk has planted a whimsical three-foot trash can in the shape of a rocket. Before he secured larger quarters for SpaceX in Hawthorne (where it is slated to move), Musk looked into taking Howard Hughes’s old space in Playa Vista, in part because the idea made him laugh: “It will invite comparisons,” he said at the time. “I better not pee in a jar or grow my fingernails long.”
Musk has a James Bond coolness about him. His trousers are fine wool yet far from designer flashy. At close to six feet tall, he seems big enough to win a fight but too smart to get into one. In his face you can see the earnest, round-cheeked schoolboy he once was—at age eight, for example, when he used to read the encyclopedia. Many children, of course, do this, but Musk did it in an unusual way. “He never forgot anything that he read,” his mother told me. As he and I chat in his office, a self-consciously egalitarian cubicle whose walls only reach shoulder height, Musk seems to notice everything. His eyes dart from mine to his monitor to the twentysomething techies bantering in the hall. Like a computer, he can open one application—say, the program for conversational charm—while unobtrusively running several others.
Musk speaks with a clipped accent—one of the few things he brought with him from South Africa, which he left for Montreal at age 17 to avoid compulsory service in the apartheid-era army. His sister, Tosca, and his mother, Maye, followed. For Maye, a nutritionist, the choice was hard. She couldn’t transfer her assets from South Africa. But believing her prospects would be better in Toronto, where Musk had moved, she and Tos-ca took an apartment and started over. Musk’s brother, Kimbal, remained in Pretoria with his father, who was divorced from Maye.
Musk usually begins his story at Queen’s University in Canada, from which he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, attracted by its prestigious Wharton School. His official majors were physics and business. But his real major was nightclub management. With fellow student Adeo Ressi, Musk opened a floating underground club, sometimes held in the house that the two rented, sometimes elsewhere. Between the cash bar and cover charges, Ressi recalled, “you could make a thousand dollars a night.”
As Musk and I walked around the SpaceX high bay, he explained one way he planned to cut launch costs: by building his rocket components—airframe, engines, everything—in-house. He swept his hand across his fiefdom, from the main concrete floor, where barrel sections of the rocket would be assembled, to a glass-enclosed clean room, where dust-sensitive engine components would be tweaked. Parts designed for one rocket can be combined with others to make a larger rocket. For instance, Falcon 1 is a two-stage vehicle. It uses SpaceX’s Merlin engine to power stage one and its smaller Kestrel engine to power stage two. But Falcon 1 is only a first step. Musk’s larger booster, Falcon 9, will use nine Merlin engines on stage one. It will also enable people to reach orbit.
Getting to orbit, Musk emphasized, is much harder than grazing the edge of space, which is all many of his competitors aspire to do. “SpaceShipOne only has to reach a speed of about Mach 5,” he said. “Orbit requires about 70 times more energy—and a speed of about Mach 25.” That extra propellant adds up: SpaceShipOne carries just a tiny bit of the fuel necessary to reach suborbit; it fires its rocket after being dropped from a mother plane that uses conventional air-breathing engines. Falcon 1 has to lug enough fuel to take it from sea level to orbit, and fuel is heavy. “The relationship of propellant to mass in a car is ½ percent,” Musk clarified. “In the Falcon 1, it is 94½ percent.”
Many of Falcon’s parts are reusable, and reusability can also reduce costs, as it has in commercial aviation. You don’t have to throw away the plane every time you fly it. Falcon 1’s first stage is fully—if not effortlessly—recoverable. It parachutes to the ocean, where divers can retrieve it. Musk and his team have made breakthroughs in engine design, but they don’t pursue whiz-bang technology for its own sake. Multistage rockets are a proven commodity; they have been around since the 1950s. Rocket planes have not; no company has produced one that has gone into orbit. While a space-shuttle-type vehicle may be reusable, it tends to have heat problems at high speeds during takeoff and reentry. To reinvigorate the multistage concept, Musk is applying efficiency—the equivalent of Henry Ford’s assembly line—to production.
This approach reassured prospective clients: Who better than Musk, whose PayPal transformed the banking industry, to rethink rocketry? Customers flocked to SpaceX. He signed up 11 of them, including the Department of Defense, Robert Bigelow, and the government of Malaysia. This was amazing for a rocket with no track record. Musk was riding high. He was magic, failure proof. So what if the odds for a maiden rocket flight favored calamity? His El Segundo neighbors, the aerospace dinosaurs, might have told him that, had he cared to listen. Falcon 1’s first launch, he confidently announced, would take place by 2004, and it would happen at Vandenberg Air Force Base, up the coast near Santa Barbara.
The Long Island Expressway is an unlikely road to Damascus. Yet it was the site of Musk’s conversion. Musk had just visited the Hamptons. When he left for New York City, he believed that humanity’s future lay on Earth. By the time he arrived in Manhattan, he believed the opposite: that in order to survive, the human race must spread out among the stars. The year was 2002. Musk had been driving with his wife, Justine Wilson Musk, and his college buddy Ressi, who had recently sold his Web content company to AOL. The men were whining about their terrible quandary: They had made so much money from the Internet that they no longer needed to work. But lying around bored them. What, they wondered, to do next?
“I pointed my hand out the window, and I was like, ‘space,’” Ressi said. “We debunked the idea no one can do anything in space. The more we debunked the idea as being impossible, the more it made us interested in how we could do it. Why does it take a billion dollars? Why is it so complex? It’s just metal and fuel.”
One thought led to another: What would happen if humans didn’t find a way to leave the planet? What if catastrophe struck, the way many scientists predicted that it would? In this moment Musk and Ressi found a purpose bigger than economics alone. The whole future of the human genome might depend on their efforts. “We immediately started flying around the world, meeting with everyone and anyone in the space industry to get the lay of the land,” Ressi said.
Many key players in the alternative space movement are near-miss astronauts. Peter Diamandis, for one. Diamandis, who lives in Santa Monica, holds degrees in both molecular biology and aeronautics and astronautics from MIT as well as a doctorate of medicine from Harvard—credentials that normally appeal to NASA. But the future of private space might have been different had NASA sucked him into its deadening bureaucracy. In 1995, Diamandis founded the X-Prize. Today his thriving space businesses include an airline that provides zero-gravity flights to tourists and the Rocket Racing League, which mounts speed contests between piloted rockets—the space crowd’s answer to NASCAR. “Peter is a huckster,” a space activist told me on the condition of anonymity. “But everything he sells is quality.” Ressi certainly thought so. He accepted Diamandis’s invitation to join the X-Prize board.
Musk, in contrast, was impressed with Robert Zubrin, author of The Case for Mars and founder of the Mars Society, which advocates a trip to the Red Planet ASAP with Apollo-era technology. Infected with Zubrin’s enthusiasm, Musk briefly considered a mission to send a mouse to Mars to prove that an animal could survive bombardment with cosmic rays, for which no cost-efficient shielding exists. (Zubrin has argued fiercely that NASA is too cautious about these rays, even though recent research at Brookhaven National Laboratory showed that they can cause cancer and brain damage.) According to Ressi, after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals got wind of the mouse mission, Musk decided to send a seedling. He would demonstrate that food could grow on the Martian surface.
More annoying than PETA were the Russians, who demanded cash up front to secure a launch on their Energia rocket—and for that matter, cash installments at meetings. In many ways the Russians are responsible for SpaceX. Launch costs, Musk realized, are the most expensive part of any space mission. When the Russians wouldn’t negotiate on price, Musk walked away. Mars could wait. The space world needed a cheap, reusable launch vehicle, and he would provide it.
You can tell a great deal about space enthusiasts by the sci-fi they read. The classic cold war stuff—Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein—emphasized plausible hardware and the laws of physics. Today’s astronauts, as well as most of Musk’s competitors, favor these guys; one of the first books in the library of the International Space Station, for example, was Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Musk, however, is a fan of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and an unabashed ironist. For Adams, space travel is “space travel,” and technology—far from being bold and new—is shabby chic. Within the genre Adams is the antipode of Heinlein. This says a lot about Musk, his sense of humor, and his metamorphosis into a rocket maker. Something extraordinary happened on the Long Island Expressway. He did not just convert from software to hardware, or from the Internet to outer space. He moved from irony to earnestness.
“I believe it can be argued that extending life beyond Earth is one of the most important things humanity could ever achieve and worth risking a lot to advance,” he later said. “This would represent a major milestone in the history of life itself, at least on par with life on Earth moving from the oceans to land, and it puts the parochial, cause du jour concerns of Homo sapiens into perspective.”
Musk’s wife, Justine, is also capable of earnestness—about literary fiction, which she both reads and writes. Fortunately, her work contains enough gore and death to qualify for the horror genre, which commands a wider audience. In 2005, her novel Blood Angel was published by Penguin’s Roc imprint.
The Musks are private people, yet in a paradox unique to the medium in which Musk made his fortune, they are also exposed—on Justine’s blog. In phrases that are less felicitous than those in her books, she reveals another side of Elon: the Elon who with PayPal cofounder David O. Sacks produced Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking, an adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s novel about a tobacco lobbyist doing his libertarian best to preserve the right to get cancer from cigarettes. This is the Elon that The Economist branded “a playboy” because he partied at Hugh Hefner’s, and an Elon who mingles with other dot-com gazillionaires in places like the Roosevelt and Les Deux. An Elon who descended from his home atop a Bel-Air hill to attend numerous exclusive Oscar parties last year. An Elon so glamorous that one would not believe he lugs rocket dynamics textbooks on beach vacations, as his wife claims he does.
But then, Justine isn’t exactly the person her appearance would suggest, either. Willowy and Nordic, she is weary of Angelenos who take one look and peg her for a failed actress who snagged a superrich husband. From the get-go Musk pursued her, not the other way around. “He was very persistent,” she said. Persistence, however, was not what prevailed. It was his belief in her as a writer. They were counterparts: passionate and talented yet in almost antithetical fields. After around five years of what she termed “butting heads”—living apart, seeing other people—she asked him why he stuck with her. Because of her commitment to work, he said. “You know what you want, and you actually have some ambition.”
To understand Musk, you must know that family is vital to him—not just his real-life mom and siblings but the idea of family, as it relates to saving the human species and advancing the genome. “People have to make sure they have at least as many babies as people who die,” Musk said. “The death rate has to equal the birth rate. Otherwise you get a population inversion, which is what happened in Japan and is happening in Europe, where there are birth rates of 1.2, 1.3 children per woman. You need 2.2 to retain parity.” The Musks have done their part to stave off inversion. They have five children, twins and triplets, mostly towheaded like their mother. The Musks’ first child died of sudden infant death syndrome. They were devastated. Yet they realized something important. “No amount of money can insulate you from tragedy,” Justine said.
One can cite the precise moment when the space movement’s giggle factor vanished: SpaceShipOne’s first flight, on June 21, 2004. On the eve of the launch, thousands of space enthusiasts planted their tents and RVs on the outskirts of the Mojave airport, a graveyard of commercial airliners retired after 9/11 and parked in the desert to avoid rust. Appropriately, the flight occurred a few days after the opening of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle. Both were financed by Paul Allen, who liked to explain that Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo, a novel about two boys who build a spacecraft in their backyard, had inspired him.
The campers were eager but not impatient. Many had waited for this moment for at least 30 years, since 1974, when the L5 Society, a coalition of would-be space settlers, was formed. Their bible was The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, a book by Gerard K. O’Neill, a professor of physics at Princeton University. (L5 is a point of gravitational equilibrium located in the Moon’s orbit an equal distance from Earth and the Moon, a point where a colony might be placed.) Other space advocacy groups, such as the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, came later.
Unlike Musk, the early space enthusiasts were insular and removed from the world. They had their own language—mostly acronyms—and jokes. They even had their own music: guitar-accompanied sea chanteys with lyrics about roving astronauts. The songs were called “filk,” derived from a typo for “folk.” If the Amish had revered technology instead of renouncing it and wrapped themselves in message T-shirts instead of gray homespun, they might have passed for the Space Frontier Foundation.
The space movement has a pragmatic political wing, without whose lobbying in Washington, D.C., space tourism would have been impossible. The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, for which the activists fought, establishes the concept of an informed consumer to whom the perils of spaceflight—including fatality—have been explained. On a regular airliner, a passenger can expect a certain level of safety. Through the new legislation, the Federal Aviation Administration permits a “space tourist” to fly with a significantly lower level of safety.
The campground at Mojave was festive; it could have been Woodstock or Burning Man. People downed beer. Boom boxes thumped. I heard “Gimme Shelter,” “Boogie Wonderland,” filk. Children scuttled. Fans wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word GO. No one had to ask where.
If Mojave was the center of space fandom that night, the hangar at XCOR Aerospace was the center of the center. The private rocket company, a short walk from Rutan’s headquarters, held a barbecue outside its hangar. People performed space geek parlor tricks, such as freezing ice cream in the liquid nitrogen dewar and burning a rocket engine mounted to a food-service cart. “Fire the tea cart!” a small group chanted. “Woo-hoo!” Musk passed through XCOR that night. He was quick to profess admiration for Rutan and his “neat technology demonstration”—not surprising, since the two men are friends. But the part of Musk that yearns to colonize overrode his internal diplomat. “Is it going to change the world?” Musk said later. “Not really. It doesn’t help people get to orbit.” Around midnight the two-lane highway from Palmdale to Mojave became a parking lot. Anyone with a hotel reservation to the west of the airport had little chance of returning in time for the launch. At least 30 people (I was one of them) unrolled sleeping bags on the XCOR hangar floor.
Dawn in the desert was a sullen planetscape: bleak, blue-violet, and alien. The light threw otherworldly rock formations into high relief. The acrid scent of jet fuel stung the air, as last night’s revelers, bundled against the early morning cold, clustered along the tarmac, behind platforms of TV equipment. White Knight, the plane to whose belly SpaceShipOne was lashed, taxied down the runway. Mike Melvill, the 64-year-old pilot of SpaceShipOne, waved. His age was a slap at NASA’s cult of youth. Then White Knight gained speed and ascended.
Although the plane climbed rapidly, it seemed slow—so eager was everyone to watch history happen, because even a disaster would have been historic. About an hour after takeoff, White Knight dropped SpaceShipOne. From where I stood, the craft was in front of the Sun. I couldn’t see it. But I knew when it fired its engine. It was audible—as was the crowd’s collective gasp.
By the time Melvill landed, it was mid-day and hot. At the press conference after the flight, Melvill, who flew high enough to earn official astronaut wings, addressed the would-be space colonists’ spiritual yearnings: “Seeing the Earth from space was almost a religious experience,” he said. Allen called the flight “a triumph for private space enterprise.” But the strongest predictor of the future of spaceflight was a sign Rutan held: SPACESHIPONE, GOVERNMENT ZERO.
In the five years since Musk started SpaceX, he has had the Muskitude beaten out of him. Or so his rivals say. He has spent $100 million on research and development and launched two rockets, neither of which reached orbit. “How do you make a small fortune in the space business?” he asked when I first met him. “You start with a large one.”
Musk isn’t unusually blighted. Rocketry is hard. Designing a rocket, said Pat Bahn, a founder of TGV Rockets, an Oklahoma company, “is like trying to make your way through a maze in a dense fog—and at every corner someone grabs at you for money.” Sounds like Musk with his Merlin engine. “I don’t know if there’s a single thing in that engine that has worked,” Musk said about the Merlin’s early prototypes. “Where do I start? The turbo pump has been difficult, the thrust chamber assembly’s been difficult, and all the little stuff in between has been difficult, too.”
Then there was the launch site. Musk announced the first Falcon launch for Vandenberg Air Force Base. He leased a pad from the air force and, after a successful static firing of his Merlin engine at the SpaceX test site in Texas, hauled his rocket and his mission control trailer up the coast. His team got the rocket in place and test-fired it again with the rocket held down. SpaceX was at last set to go, but the air force wasn’t. Because of the site’s proximity to a big, dangerous Titan IV, which carried a classified payload, the air force denied SpaceX permission to launch.
Musk was furious. “It’s like you build your house…somebody else builds a house next to you and tells you to get out of your house,” he told a reporter. “Like, what the hell…after we’ve made that big investment and everything.” Musk vowed to fight, but the air force was intransigent. Falcon 1, it determined, was also too close to another important rocket, the Atlas V. Faced with an interminable delay, Musk shipped Falcon 1 to the Reagan test site in Kwajalein.
“I’m not saying Elon was naive, but he had a high expectation that he would be treated fairly,” said Sandy Sandfort, a space advocate who is lobbying for a spaceport in Panama. “He proposes to cut into a billion-dollar business—why should he be treated fairly?”
Launching in the western Pacific Ocean does have its advantages. If a rocket veers off, it won’t flatten a suburb. But rough swells in the open sea, as opposed to gentler ones in California’s coastal waters, make it difficult to recover reusable parts. Nevertheless, in December 2005, SpaceX pitched a big white tent in its parking lot and threw a launch party. The staff handed out swag bags and T-shirts. TV monitors played a Web cast of Falcon 1’s pad in Kwajalein. It showed trees bending from the wind, an ominous foreshadowing of things to come.
The launch had been set for the morning. Guests arrived in El Segundo by nine, and by lunch, the party food—coffee in silver urns, elegant breakfast pastries—looked tired. This was the problem: Falcon 1’s launchpad was not on the same island as its mission control center. When sensors on the rocket detected a glitch, the launch team would have had to make a 20-minute boat trip to fix it. Musk, however, had not stockpiled enough liquid oxygen (which is used both as a fuel component and to cool the rocket’s helium supply) on the island to allow for this delay. The launch was scrubbed until Musk could import more liquid oxygen from Hawaii.
Battling high winds and temperamental machinery, Musk made three more attempts to launch in the ensuing months. Each time he announced a fresh try, I thought of the handwritten scrawl on a wedding invitation that I once received from a much-married friend: “It’s that time again.”
On March 28, 2006, Musk finally lit the candle. In less than a minute, the first-stage engine was in flames and the rocket fell into the ocean. After a months-long investigation, engineers determined that a corroded nut had permitted Falcon’s fuel to leak, and the fuel had caught fire. When the rocket exploded, the video feed to the SpaceX Web site died, which was convenient: No one could see it, or worse, replay it. Musk had learned the error of overconfidence; he threw no more public parties.
As if his launch problems weren’t enough, the aerospace Goliaths—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman—attacked. Northrop Grumman sued SpaceX, alleging that some of its technical designs were too close to its own. Then Lockheed and Boeing merged their rocket divisions to form United Launch Alliance, which some competitors felt gave them an unfair advantage in seeking launch contracts.
Morale sank. Maybe a little company couldn’t whip big aerospace. But Musk got an unexpected break. The rules changed. Everything changed. For more than 30 years, the private space movement viewed NASA and its bloated contractors as the enemy. Then Rutan flew, and haughty, self-satisfied NASA, once the only game in the solar system, realized that it had an image problem. The only way to up its dwindling luster was to borrow some from those who had it—the entrepreneurs. When the space shuttle retires in 2010, the agency expects a private firm to replace it with the sort of cheap, efficient crew capsule and booster that NASA seems no longer able to make. SpaceX was among the first to profit from the turn. NASA split a $500 million contract between SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, an Oklahoma-based firm, to deliver “commercial orbital transport services.”
In December Musk will ship a Falcon 1 to Kwajalein for a launch in early 2008. The following year he hopes to send up his favorite new toy, Dragon, a capsule that, atop Falcon 9, will be able to transport cargo and, eventually, people to the International Space Station. When the Space Frontier Foundation convened in L.A. last year, Musk could not wait to show Dragon off. Shaped like a cone and big enough for seven passengers, the module resembled a cross between an Apollo capsule and a high-end SUV. “The windows are four panes of glass,” Musk explained, in his best car salesman voice, to about a dozen space enthusiasts on his factory floor. Musk had the passion of the convert: He loved this hardware.
“There is an outer pane of two high-temperature glass panes, one inner-pressure pane, and an innermost scratch-protection pane,” he continued.
The crowd oohed.
“The nose rotates over to dock with something, like a space station,” he said, gesturing toward the apex of the cone. “We have a quadruple-redundant life-support system which uses lithium hydroxide to extract CO2,” he elaborated, as well as an emergency pressurization system.
The crowd aahed.
He was especially proud of the seats, whose inserts will be custom-molded for each passenger. “All that’s missing is the attitude control system and a base heat shield for reentry.” He grinned.
Reda Anderson, the West Los Angeles adventure traveler who gained celebrity by booking the first tourist seat on the Kistler Rocketplane, ran a critical eye over the cockpit. She introduced herself to Musk.
“I won’t be selling tickets until at least 2009,” he quipped. Unless, that is, an asteroid careers off course and heads our way.
Musk’s eyes lingered on Dragon. It was the gaze of a parent on a precocious child. He permitted the visitors to climb a ladder and peer at its interior. But he didn’t want them to damage it or leave fingerprints.
For all the nobility of Musk’s goals—for all the intensity of his commitment—he is not a space utopian. He sees people for what they are and, remarkably, still wants to save them. “I’m well aware that people are capable of horribly bad as well as good actions,” he said. “On balance, however, I think the good outweighs the bad, and it is worth trying our best to improve humanity’s existence on Earth and expand to other planets.” Especially if he can help them get there in an achingly beautiful clipper like Dragon.