Rocket Men: Elon Musk, SpaceX
Net worth: The founder of Tesla and former CEO of Paypal, Musk is worth approximately US$20 billion.
Chief Activities: SpaceX, founded in 2002, designs, manufactures and launches rockets and spacecraft. Its core business is launching satellites and transporting cargo to the ISS for Nasa, and SpaceX is under contract with the government space agency to take astronauts there with its Dragon capsules, although this is still in the works. The US Air Force also continues to award SpaceX hundreds of millions of dollars in launch contracts. But SpaceX has much loftier goals.
Mission: To dramatically reduce the cost of space travel by developing reusable booster rockets and capsules, with the ultimate goal of making us a “multi-planetary species.” Musk wants to colonise Mars to protect the human race from extinction.
The first passengers could take off for the planet as early as 2024, according to the SpaceX founder, with tickets around US$200,000. After landfall, Musk predicts it would take around 40 years to develop a self-sufficient city on Mars. Pie in the sky stuff? Not entirely.
Approach: For Musk, space is the new Wild West, a frontier that demands to be explored. A risk-taker with a penchant for pushing boundaries, he lives in the media spotlight and is famous for setting audacious deadlines.
Christian Davenport, who reports on the space and defense industries at the Washington Post, describes SpaceX as “very hard-charging, very scrappy, doing it on the cheap using recycled parts, finding innovative and efficient ways to build their rockets, hiring very smart people and really just attacking it the way a private enterprise would.”
Milestones: SpaceX made headlines in August when Nasa announced that the company’s Crew Dragon capsule will start transporting astronauts to the ISS in 2019, making it the first commercially produced spacecraft to do so.
The Dragon capsule previously achieved a world first when it delivered a payload to the ISS in 2012. Other SpaceX milestones include developing the Falcon 9, the first reusable orbital rocket. In December 2015, the Falcon 9 succeeded in its first ground landing, making the possibility of reflight a reality.
SpaceX successfully relaunched and landed the Falcon 9 in March 2017. This constituted the world’s first reflight of an orbital-class rocket. Then there’s SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which has the highest payload capacity of any currently operational launch vehicle.
On its maiden launch in February, it carried a Tesla Roadster as a dummy payload. It was designed to carry humans into space and, according to Musk, restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the moon or Mars.
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Setbacks: In 2015, one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets exploded shortly after lifting off from Cape Canaveral en route to deliver cargo to the ISS. Another Falcon 9 blew up in September 2016, this time while being fuelled on the launch pad ahead of an engine test. As these were unmanned spacecraft, no one was hurt.
What’s next: SpaceX, under contract to Nasa, is refining the Dragon capsule to enable it to fly people to the ISS, with the first manned test flight expected within six months to a year. If they’re able to do that successfully, says Davenport, we could expect to see routine suborbital space tourism flights, maybe even orbital tourism flights, and maybe even tourism flights around the moon in the not-too-distant future.
Illustration: KY Chan