In Hawthorne, California, birthplace of the Beach Boys and just minutes south of Los Angeles International Airport, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is making the futuristic “final frontier” envisioned in movies like “Star Trek” a near-term reality. Never heard of SpaceX? It’s the private sector’s version of NASA, which means it works with the best talent, ahead of schedule, under budget, and with a viable business model.
Early Tuesday morning, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, SpaceX blasted its Falcon9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft into orbit, with the goal of transporting equipment and supplies to the International Space Station. SpaceX aims to be the FedEx of space initially, and to later become the Delta Airlines of space, without the bankruptcy filings or union obligations.
Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk and funded initially with Musk’s own money, SpaceX also aims to do what NASA could not: remain technologically and financially viable in the long term. Thus far, SpaceX has succeeded: it designed and launched the first privately developed rocket to reach orbit; and it was awarded a NASA contract worth $1.6 billion to ferry space cargo in the years to come.
As SpaceX heads for the moon, its success provides America a (rocket) boost in scientific, technological, and economic advancement. Back on earth, President Obama has proclaimed solar shingles and green technology as America’s next Sputnik moment, but when it comes to green energy, “Houston, we have a problem.” In contrast, Musk and SpaceX are driving a Sputnik moment full of promise. Hawthorne: we have liftoff.
The story of SpaceX and its success is uniquely American. Musk was born in South Africa, educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford (briefly: he dropped out), and by his twenty-ninth birthday, he was a millionaire hundreds of times over after Compaq purchased his first company, Zip2, for over $340 million in cash and stock options.
Flush with cash, Musk, ever the inventor, created x.com, an online e-mail payment company, which eventually became PayPal. After eBay purchased PayPal for $1.5 billion in 2002, Musk created SpaceX to develop the rockets that will make future (government and private) space travel possible. As witnessed Tuesday, the rockets and SpaceX are firing on all cylinders.
As a result, Musk and SpaceX are boldly going where no NASA bureaucrat has gone before: they are making successful space flight profitable. And they are doing it at a time when the United States is by many accounts ceding its dominance of space to other nations, namely China.