Making Space Travel Good Business

October 13, 2009 |   | Contact: Aleta Watson

Elon Musk standing before the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. In December 2008, NASA announced the selection of the Falcon 9 to resupply the ISS when the Space Shuttle retires in 2010. The $1.6 billion contract represents a minimum of 12 flights, with an option to order additional missions. Image courtesy of SpaceX.

As NASA looks back on 50 years of space exploration, Elon Musk is looking ahead to life beyond Earth. The best way to get there, he contends, is business entry into the universe of space travel.

Musk, the 38-year-old CEO and chief technology officer of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), is the keynote speaker at the October CCST meeting. He’s been an evangelist for the commercialization of space travel ever since he founded the Hawthorne, California-based company in 2002. Last year he received an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics award for his innovative, low-cost approaches to space transportation.

“I think really the only way we’ll ever extend life beyond Earth is by having a strong commercial role,” Musk says. “Because I think we’ll never be able to afford it – by a factor of 10 or 100 even – if it’s done by the government.”

In just seven years, SpaceX has designed and launched the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to reach orbit, placed a satellite in space, and landed a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to transport cargo to the international space station starting next year. It was one of the first two private contracts for space transportation awarded by the agency.

The test launch of Falcon 9, the rocket designed for the NASA flights, is expected sometime in early 2010. Onboard will be the Dragon spacecraft designed with an eye toward eventually transporting crew as well as cargo.

A native of South Africa, Musk was pursuing a graduate degree in physics when he abandoned Stanford University for the high tech opportunities of Silicon Valley. He co-founded Zip2 Corporation, which provided software and services to the media industry, in 1995. It sold for $307 million four years later and he became co-founder and CEO of PayPal, the electronic payment system. He was the largest shareholder when PayPal was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.

With personal finances no longer his concern, Musk turned to solar energy, electric cars and space travel. He’s chairman of Solar City and CEO of Tesla Motors as well as head of SpaceX.

“The common thread is I’ve always been interested in working on things that I think will change the world in a positive way,” Musk says. “The Internet, clean energy and space exploration just seemed like the things that would most affect the future of humanity in a positive way.”

The other points his ventures have in common are advanced technology and a Silicon Valley approach to innovation and management. SpaceX is a vertically integrated company that designs, develops and launches all of its rockets from the ground up, unlike aerospace companies from an earlier era, which outsource much of their work.

“We’ve a number of inventions in propulsion, in the vehicle structures, in advance navigation control and the launch operation itself,” Musk notes. “It’s really a complex systems problem and there are a lot of innovations throughout the vehicle, with a net result that it’s at a lower cost.”

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