May 23, 2007


Elon Musk Is Betting His Fortune on a Mission Beyond Earth's Orbit (Carl Hoffman, 05.22.07, Wired)

For a rich guy with a private jet and a million-dollar sports car, Elon Musk is unusually quiet and shy. He is tall, with long arms and big hands and a boyish face that often looks distracted; you can tell the wheels inside his head never quite stop spinning.

Before he founded SpaceX in 2002, Musk created two Internet companies: Zip2, which he sold to Compaq in 1999 for $307 million in cash, and PayPal, which went public shortly before being sold to eBay. Musk, the largest shareholder, was 30 years old, crazy rich, and "tired of the Internet."

Sitting in traffic on the Long Island Expressway in 2001, mulling the problems of the world, Musk started wondering about NASA's plans to send people to Mars. Which, he discovered when he finally reached a computer, didn't exist. Musk was horrified. A native of South Africa, he had earned physics and business degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and dropped out of a graduate program in physics at Stanford. He had always been interested in space, convinced that humans were destined to be a multiplanet species. But where were the Columbuses and da Gamas of the 21st century?

Still on Earth — because going to space is hard. An object in low Earth orbit stays there, 250 miles up, only when the force that put it up there equals the gravity trying to pull it back down. And that force comes from one thing: massive amounts of kinetic energy, also known as speed.

"Look," Musk says, scribbling equations on a notepad, "the energy increases with the square of the velocity. To go 60 miles into suborbital space, like Rutan and the X-Prize, you need to travel at Mach 3. The square of that is 9. But to get to orbit, you need to go Mach 25, and the square of that is 625. So you're looking at something that takes 60 to 70 times more energy. And then, to come back, you need to unwind that energy in a meteoric fireball, and if there's one violation of integrity, you're toast."

To date, only the interests of national security have harnessed the capital and intellectual muscle necessary to get to orbit. "Virtually every rocket that exists today in the US fleet is a legacy of ballistic missiles," says Roger Launius, a historian at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The American and Russian space programs required armies of engineers working with nearly unlimited budgets. The Apollo lunar program cost more than $150 billion in 2007 dollars and took 300,000 people and more than 3 percent of the US federal budget for 1964 through 1966. Even the "cheap," reusable space shuttle is such a thoroughbred that it requires a ground crew of 50,000 and costs $1 billion every time it flies. (It also remains the most dangerous rocket system ever created.)

The handful of private companies that have managed to get something into orbit have basically used hardware developed under government programs. Their services aren't cheap: Lofting a satellite into orbit on a Sea Launch Zenit sets DirecTV or XM Satellite Radio back $50 million to $75 million. Putting a 550-pound payload into low Earth orbit on an Orbital Sciences Pegasus costs the Air Force $30 million. "If we can't figure out how to get to Earth orbit at a much lower price," Launius says, "we'll never be able to do the things we want to do in space." Musk's fee for hauling a 1,400-pound payload: $6.9 million.

The list of companies that have tried and failed to go orbital is long enough to have spawned a hackneyed joke: What's the fastest way to become a commercial space millionaire? Start as a commercial space billionaire. "Moore's law does not apply to rockets," says John Pike, a space analyst at "Humanity has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on space exploration in the past half century, and the numbers have not changed: about $10,000 per pound to put something in low Earth orbit. Elon Musk is asserting that his future is going to be remarkably different, and that's a tall claim."

No Ferdinand and Isabella, no Buck Rogers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 23, 2007 11:08 AM

Columbus may have found the new world, but it was English corporations that colonized it.

Also, even more entertaining than SpaceX are the folks at Armadillo Aerospace, led/funded by videogame programming wizard John Carmack. Working part-time in a warehoues in Texas, they have a rocket program that would worry arms-control experts if it belonged to a third-world country.

Posted by: Mike Earl at May 23, 2007 11:44 AM

The vulture doesn't bring down the zebra, just feeds off the kill.

Posted by: oj at May 23, 2007 1:21 PM

Yeah, so it's built on a foundation of government R&D. So's the Internet. That doesn't mean there will be no breakthroughs that will make space access cheaper, and it's more likely to come from Burt Rutan etc. than NASA.

Posted by: PapayaSF at May 23, 2007 11:13 PM