The Rocketeer

Forget Tesla. Forget the Hyperloop. Elon Musk is all about space.

Illustration by Tadaomi Shibuya
Illustration by Tadaomi Shibuya

Every generation or so, a visionary comes along and completely revolutionizes an industry, even an entire economy. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are two who come to mind. To a lesser extent, so does Steve Jobs.

To this group I would add Elon Musk.

The South African-born 42-year-old immigrated to North America in his youth with a dream and little else to his name. The move coincided with his imminent compulsory service in the South African Army. “Suppressing black people just didn’t seem like a really good way to spend time,” he told me in an interview a few years ago. A better way, he decided, was to design and build products that might change lives.

Since then, Musk has become one of the world’s great innovators. He has leveraged the millions he made through the sale of PayPal, which he co-founded, into billions — and used that money to give life to ideas that once existed only in the imagination.

Most people who’ve heard of Musk probably think of him in connection with Tesla Motors, of which he’s the CEO and chief product architect. Tesla, according to Consumer Reports (and recent troubles with battery packs notwithstanding), makes the best car in the world. The magazine gave Tesla’s Model S, a sleek luxury sedan, its highest-ever rating for a car (99 out of 100) in May 2013. The Model S, which is all-electric, was also Motor Trend‘s 2013 Car of the Year. In short, Musk isn’t just making great cars — he’s upending the automotive industry by making an electric car superior to every gas guzzler on the road.

The modern world’s love affair with cars ensures that Tesla gets attention, and Musk also made headlines in 2013 for proposing the Hyperloop, a radical form of ground transport that would whisk passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco through partially evacuated tubes in just over half an hour. What gets less notice, but is no less deserving of it, is Musk’s work in the rocket business.

Thinking it would be pretty cool to land a plant-growth experiment on Mars but finding the cost prohibitively high, Musk started his own rocket company to bring the price down. In 2010, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, of which Musk is CEO and chief designer, became the first company to send a privately owned and operated vehicle into orbit and back. Then, in May 2012, an unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule berthed with the International Space Station (ISS), becoming the first private vehicle to rendezvous with an orbital destination.

Musk’s competitors are still playing catch-up. The NASA-designed Space Launch System (SLS), slated to take over the now-retired shuttle’s job as America’s spaceship, is derisively known as the “Senate Launch System” because, though overpriced and technically challenged, it’s kept alive by congressional mandate. On the private side, in September, Orbital Sciences Corp. became the second company to send cargo to the ISS, but its vehicle costs more than SpaceX’s model and it can’t return cargo to Earth. In fact, Musk’s Dragon is the only vehicle in existence capable of returning cargo from the ISS.

Musk, who comes across as soft-spoken, levelheaded, and unassuming, is looking to shake up the rocket industry even more by following a fellow visionary’s example. “Henry Ford didn’t invent the internal combustion engine,” Musk told me while I was writing a book on commercial spaceflight back in 2004. “But he found out how to make one at low cost, and that’s the appropriate analogy here.” Since that interview, SpaceX has taken over a Boeing 747 fuselage assembly plant in Hawthorne, California, where it’s working to make launch vehicles and spaceships more affordable by mass-producing them.

SpaceX has almost a million square feet of development and assembly space, and as with Ford’s River Rouge complex, the company takes in raw materials and spits out completed products: About 70 percent of the components in SpaceX’s creations are built in-house, and most are designed to work together, no matter the vehicle. The already-successful cargo ship will require only a few modifications to enable it to fly crews. And three of the Falcon 9 rocket’s engine cores will combine to form the Falcon Heavy, envisioned as the most powerful booster since the Saturn V moon rocket.

Another way of making things affordable — admittedly in the context of launches that currently cost, at minimum, tens of millions of dollars — is to reuse rockets, which usually fall to a fiery doom after delivering payloads. If commercial aviation operated this way, transatlantic flights could easily top $1 million a seat because the ticket price would have to include the cost of a new aircraft.

In September, virtually unnoticed amid congressional squabbling that would soon shut down the U.S. government, a SpaceX Falcon 9 that had just dropped off several satellites in orbit made history: It relit three of its engines and re-entered the atmosphere at hypersonic speed without burning up. It then relit its center engine one final time to cushion its water landing. Unfortunately, the rocket was spinning too rapidly to stabilize, and it broke up on impact with the Pacific Ocean.

Speaking on a conference call with reporters a few hours later, however, Musk was anything but disappointed. “It was a really great day,” he said, adding that all the booster needed in order to stabilize was landing legs, which had already been used in tests at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, proving ground. In the matter-of-fact tones he uses when speaking of outrageous ideas — thus making them sound eminently doable — Musk revealed plans to try the feat again following SpaceX’s next cargo delivery to the ISS, slated for February.

NASA hasn’t shown this kind of boldness and willingness to take calculated risks in its manned program since the days of Project Apollo.

At a published price of $56.5 million per launch, Falcon 9 rockets are already the cheapest in the industry. Reusable Falcon 9s could drop the price by an order of magnitude, sparking more space-based enterprise, which in turn would drop the cost of access to space still further through economies of scale.

All this adds up to the linchpin of an industry in the making, which will encompass not just the odd government contract or high-end satellite launch, but also many other activities that Musk hopes will follow the advent of affordable launch vehicles. SpaceX’s technology could be important for industries dependent on accurate and timely weather forecasting (such as agriculture), affordable logistics and supply-chain tracking, remote sensing, and more.

Beyond that, there’s the wealth of the solar system just waiting to be claimed. Space is home to an abundance of natural resources, from solar power unfiltered by clouds and the day-night cycle to mineral wealth in near-Earth asteroids. In the last year alone, two credible private ventures have sprung up to harvest natural resources based on the promise of affordable launch technology like that which SpaceX is developing.

And Musk’s initial idea of landing a small scientific payload on Mars? That has morphed into a new dream of enabling settlers to colonize the Red Planet.

When I first met Musk, before SpaceX had flown a single successful mission, he told me he wanted to have a significant, positive impact on the world. His story is still being written, but he’s already revolutionizing two modes of transportation — one firmly planted on the ground and the other heading for the stars.

What’s next?

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