SpaceX Countdown: Elon Musk Tames & Releases the Dragon
Friday, May 18th, 2012
“Yeah, right,” is a phrase Elon Musk probably heard more than a handful of times before his private space company, SpaceX, took to the skies. And he’s probably not the only one in the commercial space biz to be on the receiving end of murmuring disbelief.
But where would we be if every entrepreneurial spirit balked at the phrase “yeah, right”? Certainly not sending humans into space, or planning manned missions to mars. That’s for certain.
Elon Musk admits he didn’t know much about rockets before he began SpaceX, besides having built rockets in his backyard as a child (although that sounds pretty impressive). Now, despite not having space-related beginnings, Mr. Musk has fashioned himself into a leader of a movement that’s pushing commercialized space into the limelight.
But Mr. Musk is not alone on this frontier. Even on the UrtheCast blog, we’ve written about various ventures taking on this wild-wild West — Virgin Galactic, for instance — and the possibilities for commercial ventures to not only offset the problems of floundering space budgets, but to create international partnerships.
Now, as great as all of this is, don’t be surprised if the SpaceX cowboys get a hitch in their giddy up this Saturday. It’s a reality that space missions — especially test missions — fail from time-to-time. “This is a test, not an operational mission,” says Musk during a Google+ chat hosted by WIRED. “It’s in beta mode; kind of a test phase,” he adds. So, if SpaceX doesn’t make it to the ISS this time around, there’s always next time.
And according to Musk, there will be a next time: “There’s a very good chance that the mission does not succeed… Any time you try something for the first time, things don’t go right.”
Despite his pragmatism and disarming take on things, Musk is quick to note that no problem has been found with the Dragon spacecraft that should cause a failure. The craft has “multiple computer systems”, says Musk, “so that you could put a bullet through two of them, and it would still be operational.” We like them odds.
What’s clear is that Musk aims to revolutionize rocket technology. He’s seen a problem, isolated the problem, and now strives to fix it. By spending money on it. “Without money, there’s no technology,” says Musk. “You can’t separate economics and technology.”
Clearly, tech has changed our cultural landscape. And yet rocket technology has plateaued, suggests Musk. (Could we attribute this to nosediving budgets?) “The iPhone has more computing power than Apollo did.” Good point.
If SpaceX’s launch is successful tomorrow, and its docking with the ISS goes as planned, where does that leave SpaceX? It leaves Musk’s sights firmly set on Mars.
As Musk puts it, “something bad” will happen to the human race, and we’ll require options, planet-wise. But currently there isn’t a rocket big enough to get us to Mars, he explains.
The manned mission to Mars needs to be an impactful one he adds — not just a simple “flag and footprint mission.” This, suggests Elon, needs to be a mission that could take people to Mars and bring them back again.
The kicker? It also has to be affordable. Something a middle-income earner could bear the expense of.
Interestingly, James Cameron’s all-too-publicized asteroid mining venture would have a place in Musk’s vision for space. As he puts it, the spoils of asteroids wouldn’t be as useful here on Earth as they would be for refuelling during trips to Mars. (Makes one wonder whether Musk and Cameron have shared a phone conversation or two.)
This current line of SpaceX Falcon rockets will not be those taking us to Mars. Rather, it will be the next generation, says Musk.
“We need to concentrate on docking with the Space Station,” he says, adding that he’ll talk about Mars in a year or so.
In the meantime, all systems are “go” for the International Space Station.
by Theras Wood