22 May 2007

The Man Who Sold the Moon, Part II

The title of this post comes from a book by SF author Robert Heinlein. It details the quest of a private businessman to conquer cis-lunar space, for profit and the spirit of mankind.

Something similar is happening with internet tycoon Elon Musk, and his private company SpaceX. Musk is betting the farm that he can build a better launch vehicle--one that can compete with the tax-supported dinosaurs from the US, Europe, Russia, and other large governments.
Five years ago, Musk was just another lucky young Internet lion starting a commercial space company. But he was more audacious than his peers — he wouldn't be satisfied with a quick, touristy trip to the edge of Earth's atmosphere, like the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne. That rocket, and the passenger version that will make up Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic fleet, goes just over 60 miles high. And still it took the aeronautical genius of Burt Rutan and $20 million from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen to get SpaceShipOne up and down. Musk wants to fly resupply missions — with astronauts! — to the International Space Station, at 250 miles up in low Earth orbit.

...But first he's got to get the thing off the ground. At the dawn of the space age, between 1957 and 1966, the US sent 429 rockets into orbit; a quarter of them failed. Musk is 36 years old and has spent a fortune to build the world's first privately funded, orbit-capable vehicle to take passengers into space. And now it's sitting on its launchpad, going nowhere. Worse, it's already failed once.

....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?

...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 GlobalSecurity.org. "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."

So how will Musk charge half that? "I thought it would be hard, and it's harder than I thought," he admits. "But I want to make rockets 100 times, if not 1,000 times, better. The ultimate objective is to make humanity a multiplanet species. Thirty years from now, there'll be a base on the moon and on Mars, and people will be going back and forth on SpaceX rockets."

Musk has the right attitude to make it work. In many ways, he seems like one of the heroes from a Heinlein or Ayn Rand novel. And he is spending his own money to try to reach his goal, unlike most of the space evangelists on the stump.

The internet, telecom, computer hardware/software, and consumer electronics have all launched billionaires and mega-millionaires into the financial stratosphere. Clearly, for many of these free spirits, the next big springboard to even greater things is outer space--and the potential to become the world's first trillionaire, even after adjusting for inflation.

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