Elon Musk: The Winner of the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award Hopes to Launch a Revolution With His Spaceship and Electric Car
“Five, four, three…” At T-minus three seconds white flames explode from the 22-story rocket. “Two, one. Liftoff.” The night sky erupts with light and fire and clouds of smoke, as nine engines generating 1,320,000 pounds of thrust push the vehicle skyward at NASA’s storied Cape Canaveral launchpad. The road to orbit is short but marked with a series of technical miracles, and the rocket hits them all: 17,000 miles per hour to break from Earth’s atmosphere. First and second stage separation. Second stage ignition. In minutes it’s over: The capsule carrying 1,000 pounds of cargo is in orbit, racing toward a docking with the International Space Station, itself traveling so fast it circles the Earth 15 times a day, the second such flight of the Falcon 9 and its Dragon capsule since May. “It proves that we didn’t just get lucky the first time around,” says the rocket’s chief designer, Elon Musk. “Next year we expect four to five launches, the year after that eight to ten, and the launch rate will increase by 100 percent every year for the next four to five years.” At that rate Musk, a self-taught engineer and Internet whiz kid, will be launching more rockets than even China or Russia.
There are few things more difficult than putting something into orbit. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the space shuttle—we think of rockets and we think of the oldest, most staid monoliths: the U.S. government. NASA. Lockheed. Boeing. Space, a frontier so dangerous, so daunting, so complex and impossible, that it belongs not to the realm of lone adventurers and daring entrepreneurs, but to the combined might of the most powerful military industrial complex in the world. Except this rocket wasn’t built or launched by the U.S. government, or even Lockheed or Boeing, but by guys in surfer shorts and T-shirts, overseen by an Internet millionaire. Its flight was historic: the first privately designed, built and launched cargo resupply mission to the ISS. Or, put another way, since the retirement of the space shuttle, a small start-up company’s rocket and space capsule, which cost roughly one-tenth of a space shuttle launch to launch, has become the United States’ sole means of reaching the $100 billion space station. “Our first order of business,” says Musk, sitting in his cubicle in Hawthorne, California, “is to defeat the incumbent, old school rocket companies. Lockheed. Boeing. Russia. China. If this is a chess game, they don’t have much of a chance.”