If you ever read novels written by the late Robert Heinlein, you'd soon come across a character that was part scientist, part entrepreneur, part explorer, and wildly successful at all three. Of course, such people don't exist in real life, do they?
Meet Elon Musk (Wiki bio). If the name doesn't ring a bell, odds are you or someone you know uses the now familiar online service he developed on a regular basis. But Mr. Musk is currently involved in something even more ambitious. I had a chance to ask him a few questions about that.
Elon Musk: Extending life beyond Earth was my driver, the reason I started SpaceX in 2002. Making progress toward extending life beyond Earth is my overarching goal. I started thinking about it in college — 18 years ago, when I was 19. It seemed to me that there were three things that would have the biggest impact on our lives in the future: the Internet, transition to a sustainable energy economy, and, in particular, space exploration—the extension of human life to local planets. I’ve always been interested in space exploration as a mission, but I thought it wasn’t something that I could do right away because of its capital requirements.
So I began by founding PayPal, the Internet payment system that became quite successful. It attracted 200 million customers, became part of EBay and now constitutes a majority of EBay’s market. PayPal provided me with the capital to venture into space exploration.
DS: What services will the company offer?
EM: SpaceX is seeking to revolutionize access to space by developing a family of launch vehicles and spacecraft intended to increase the reliability and reduce the cost of both manned and unmanned space transportation, ultimately by a factor of ten. With its Falcon line of launch vehicles and the Dragon line of spacecraft, SpaceX offers light, medium and heavy lift capabilities to deliver satellites and spacecraft into any altitude and inclination, from Low-Earth Orbit to geosynchronous to planetary missions.
DS: Among the options offered by the Augustine committee is for a commercially derived heavy lift vehicle. Does SpaceX have something like that in the works?
DS: A manned flight to the ISS aboard a Soyuz currently costs about 50 million dollars. Where do you see this price in a few years when the Falcon 9 comes online and what are the benefits to US taxpayers?
EM: In contrast to the existing manned systems, a seat onboard the Dragon Spacecraft [Shown left; Company FAQ & photo gallery] launched by the Falcon 9 rocket and would cost less than $20M per seat and it is 100% manufactured and launched in the United States. We are estimating that it would create well in excess of a 1000 high quality jobs at Cape Canaveral and an equivalent number in California and Texas, where we do our manufacturing and testing. Moreover, the total cost would only be $1.5B, so taxpayers would save $2B.
DS: How far along is this system?
EM: NASA has already reviewed our cargo F9/Dragon and is comfortable enough to assign it the bulk of the operational transport duties following Shuttle retirement. Although a lot more work would be needed to certify it for astronaut transport to and from the station, which can readily be accomplished before the end of 2011, particularly given the empirical flight history it will have by then.
DS: There have already been private astronaut flights on Soyuz TMA's to the ISS - how long do they think before they offer flights to private astronauts, and are they looking at offering similar rides, that have private astronauts on board, like a manned version of Dragonlab?
EM: SpaceX is not a part of the "Space Tourism" market. The key difference between SpaceX and a company that offers rides to private astronauts is that SpaceX develops rockets which take cargo and eventually people into Earth orbit; nearly all private flights are sub-orbital, which means their vehicles only visit the edge of space for a few minutes. For orbital rockets like ours, the performance requirements and technological demands are orders of magnitude higher.
DS: Dragon has been identified at least once as a lunar capable vehicle, similar to an Apollo capsule, is that correct?
EM: After we master delivering payload and passengers to the ISS, we certainly have other destinations in mind ...
Elon Musk is the cofounder of PayPal, SpaceX, and the revolutionary electric car company Tesla Motors; if you think electric cars are clunky and slow, look below the fold! No guarantees, but he hopes to be available within the hour to respond to a few questions or comments. If you have a question for him, please help out by putting "Mr. Musk?" in the subject line.
Above, two door Tesla Roadster Sport (Company info and slide show). Below, Tesla's four door Model S Sedan (Company info and slide show). Chairman and Product Architect Elon Musk, "New technology in any field takes a few versions to optimize before reaching the mass market and in this case it is competing with 150 years and trillions of dollars spent on gasoline cars." Click on images for Wiki articles.