It all started with the dream of growing a rose on Mars. This view, Elon Musk’s view, has become a commotion of the old space industry and a fleet of new private rockets.
Now, these rockets will launch NASA astronauts from Florida to the International Space Station – the first time that a for-profit company will transport astronauts into the cosmos. It is a milestone in the attempt to commercialize space. But for Musk’s company, SpaceX, it is also the latest milestone in a wild ride that began with epic failures and the threat of bankruptcy.
If the company’s eccentric founder and CEO has what he wants, this is just the beginning: he plans to build a city on the red planet and live there. “What I really want to achieve here is to make Mars look possible, make it look like it’s something we can do in our lives and you can go,” said Musk at a lively conference of space professionals in Mexico in 2016.
Musk “is a revolutionary change” in the space world, says Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, whose Jonathan & # 39; s Space Report has followed releases and crashes for decades. Former astronaut and ex-head of the Commercial Space Aircraft Federation, Michael Lopez-Alegria, says: “I think history will look at you as a da Vinci figure.” Musk is best known for Tesla, his bold attempt to build an electric vehicle business. But SpaceX is older.
At 30, Musk was already extremely wealthy with the sale of his Internet finance company PayPal and its predecessor Zip2. He organized a series of lunches in Silicon Valley in 2001 with G. Scott Hubbard, who had been NASA’s Mars and led the agency’s Ames Research Center.
Somehow, Musk wanted to grow a rose on the red planet, which shows the world and inspires schoolchildren, Hubbard recalls. “His real focus was life on Mars,” said Hubbard, a professor at Stanford University who is now chairman of SpaceX’s Space Safety Advisory Panel.
Hubbard said the big problem was building a rocket accessible enough to go to Mars. Less than a year later, Space Exploration Technologies, called SpaceX, was born. There are many space companies, and like all others, SpaceX was designed to make a profit. But what is different is that, behind this profit motive, there is a goal, which is “to take Elon to Mars”, says McDowell.
“Having this long-term vision has made them more ambitious and things have really changed.” Everyone at SpaceX, from senior vice presidents to the barista who offers his own cappuccinos and FroYo, will say they are working to make people multi-planetary, says former SpaceX space operations director Garrett Reisman, a former astronaut today at the University of Southern California. Musk founded the company just before NASA launched the idea of commercial space.
Traditionally, private companies built things or provided services to NASA, which remained in charge and owned the equipment. The idea of larger roles for private companies has been around for more than 50 years, but the market and technology were still not right.
The two fatalities of NASA’s space shuttles – Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 – were critical, says W. Henry Lambright, professor of public policy at Syracuse University. When Columbia disintegrated, NASA had to think of a world of post-space space shuttles. That’s where private companies come in, says Lambright.
After Columbia, the agency focused on sending astronauts back to the moon, but it still had to take cargo and astronauts to the space station, says Sean O’Keefe, NASA administrator at the time. A 2005 pilot project helped private companies develop ships to take cargo to the station.
SpaceX received part of this initial funding. The company’s first three launches failed. The company may have failed, but NASA took SpaceX and started paying off, says Lambright. “You can’t explain SpaceX without really understanding how NASA valued it a little in the early days,” says Lambright.
& # 39; In a sense, SpaceX is a kind of son of NASA. & # 39; Since 2010, NASA has spent $ 6 billion to help private companies orbit people, with SpaceX and Boeing being the biggest receivers, says Phil McAlister, NASA’s commercial director. NASA plans to spend an additional $ 2.5 billion to buy 48 space station astronaut seats on 12 different flights, he says.
At just over $ 50 million per trip, it is much cheaper than what NASA Russia paid for flights to the station. Starting from scratch, SpaceX gave an advantage over older companies and NASA was left with outdated technology and infrastructure, O & # 39; Keefe says.
And SpaceX is trying to build everything on its own, giving the company more control, says Reisman. The company saves money by reusing missiles and has customers beyond NASA.
The California company now has 6,000 employees. The workers are young, highly caffeinated and spend 60 to 90 hours in weeks, say Hubbard and Reisman. They also embrace more risk than their NASA colleagues. Decisions that can last a year at NASA can be made in one or two meetings at SpaceX, says Reisman, who still advises the company.
In 2010, a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad had a split nozzle extension on an engine. This would normally mean rolling the rocket out of the block and a fix that would delay the launch by more than a month.
But with NASA’s permission, SpaceX engineer Florence Li was lifted over the rocket’s head with a crane and armor. So, using what was essentially garden shears, & # 39; she cut the thing, we launched it the next day and it worked & # 39; says Reisman. Musk is the public, unconventional face of SpaceX – smoking marijuana on a popular podcast, arguing with local officials about opening his Tesla factory during the pandemic, calling his newborn son ‘X-A-12’; But experts say veteran Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of the aerospace industry, is also critical to the company’s success.
“The SpaceX way is actually a combination of Musk & # 39; s imagination and creativity and unity and Shotwell & # 39; s good management and responsible engineering, ”said McDowell. But it all comes back to Musk & # 39; dream. Former NASA chief O’Keefe says Musk has his eccentricities, huge doses of confidence and perseverance, and the latter is the key: “You have the ability to withstand setbacks and look … where you try to go. “For Musk, it is Mars.