Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk sold PayPal to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion and used the funds to launch a batch of startups, including electric car maker Tesla and, grandest of all, Space Exploration Technologies Inc.
Part of SpaceX’s spectacular success so far has been Musk’s transfer of
business practices honed at PayPal and other startups to the design and
engineering of rockets and the Dragon spacecraft. The company designed
and built in-house the Merlin engines that power its Falcon 9 rocket. It
also developed key components like the guidance and rendezvous
technologies needed to reach the station.
Musk and his engineers
showed their mettle during Dragon’s first flight to the space station in
May when one of two laser radars used to calculate the spacecraft’s
closing distance to the station malfunctioned. Musk and his engineering
team at the company’s Hawthorne, Calif., mission control center figured
out on-the-fly that the laser beam needed to be narrowed. Only then
would NASA managers allow Dragon to get close enough to the station for
astronauts to grab the cargo ship with a 58-foot robotic arm.
precisely the kind of seat-of-the-pants engineering commercial space
companies will require in order to succeed in the unforgiving
environment of outer space.
While SpaceX is the first and only
commercial space company to reach the space station, Musk’s ultimate
goal remains sending humans to Mars. "I think we'll be able to send,
probably, the first people to Mars in roughly 12 to 15 years. That's my
estimate," the billionaire entrepreneur boldly predicted in a recent
interview on ABC’s Nightline.
Musk was asked recently whether he
has learned more from his failures or his successes. “In the case of
both Tesla and SpaceX,” he responded, “at the beginning people said … I
was likely to fail, and I agreed with them.” While critics said his
chances of success were zero, “I thought it was probably, maybe 20 or 30
percent or 40 percent. It’s just because there are no prior precedents
for success in creating an orbital space company, really, or a new car
company in the last 90 years.”
Despite the early success of
SpaceX, critics like space expert John Pike argue that “Elon hasn’t
blown up enough hardware” and SpaceX has so far been “plagued by random
So far, Musk has proven his critics wrong and is
basking in the glow of the first two successful commercial space flights
to the International Space Station. There are much bigger challenges
ahead for Musk. Key among them is whether his space machines will
function properly when human beings are strapped inside.