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The pressure is on at SpaceX

Jim Young / Reuters file
President Barack Obama, left, talks with SpaceX millionaire founder Elon Musk
during a tour of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 15.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk says it's hard to imagine being under more pressure than he is now, during preparations for the first launch of a rocket that's being put forward as a replacement for the space shuttle system.

If the California-based company's Falcon 9 rocket delivers as promised, it could start delivering cargo to the International Space Station as early as next year. And if NASA gives the go-ahead, the Falcon 9 and its Dragon capsule could be configured to carry astronauts as well in as little as three years' time.

But those are a couple of big ifs, particularly for critics such as Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "Today, the commercial providers that NASA has contracted with cannot even carry the trash back from the space station, much less carry humans to or from space safely," Shelby said last month during a Senate hearing.

A successful Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida would go a long way toward assuring NASA, the White House and Congress that SpaceX can indeed carry the trash and eventually astronauts as well. A significant launch failure, however, would strengthen the hand of Shelby and others who want NASA to resurrect the Ares 1 rocket development program. Ares 1 was part of NASA's Constellation return-to-the-moon program, but is currently marked for cancellation.


  Engines on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket light up during a launch-pad test in Florida on March 13.

The way Musk sees it, this whole issue is not just about SpaceX: He points out that the potential beneficiaries of NASA's move toward commercializing space transport include the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, which currently co-manage the shuttle program (through their venture United Space Alliance). Their Atlas and Delta rockets have launched the vast majority of spacecraft for the space agency as well as the U.S. military (through another joint venture, United Launch Alliance).

"The thing is that it's much harder for Constellation's proponents to attack the Atlas and Delta than to attack Falcon 9, which has not yet launched," Musk told me last week.

But Musk doesn't want the Falcon 9 to be just another Atlas or Delta: His motivation in founding SpaceX eight years ago was to bring about a dramatic reduction in the cost of going to space, thus taking one giant leap toward the settlement of other worlds. The list price for a Falcon 9 launch is around $50 million, compared with $138 million or more for an Atlas 5.

Musk, a 38-year-old emigre who was born in South Africa, earned millions of dollars through his involvement in early dot-com ventures such as PayPal. He's a top executive in start-ups focusing on electric cars (Tesla Motors) and solar power (SolarCity). But right now, it's his role as a space entrepreneur that's putting him most in the public eye. During a Cape Canaveral visit last month, President Barack Obama made a point of touring the Falcon 9's launch pad with Musk at his side.

All that attention just adds to the pressure as launch day approaches. The stakes are much higher for the Falcon 9 than they were for SpaceX's less powerful model, the Falcon 1, which went through three launches that were less than fully successful before reaching orbit on the fourth and fifth tries.

SpaceX is currently waiting for the Air Force to sign off on the Falcon 9's flight termination system. "We're not sure when that will finish - if the testing goes well or if there are additional issues," Musk said. The waiting game means that SpaceX's first opportunity for a launch won't come until the latter half of May at the earliest.

Even then, Musk expects that the first countdown may not go all the way to zero. If anything looks the least bit suspicious, the count will be stopped and the launch will be rescheduled. 

"There's a lot that has to go right on launch day, and we're also going to be extremely careful. ... We don't want to leave any stone unturned. We want to turn over stones two or three times, in fact," he said.


  SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, shown here in an artist's conception, is designed to carry cargo, scientific experiments or even astronauts into orbit.

SpaceX has fallen behind its original schedule for developing the Falcon 9 and the Dragon, which has provided some ammunition for Musk's critics. But the company is aiming to launch three additional test flights of the Falcon-Dragon system by the end of this year, culminating in a berthing demonstration at the space station. That would open the way for robotic cargo deliveries that could earn SpaceX $1.6 billion through 2016.

Although Musk's main focus right now is getting the first Falcon 9 off on a successful flight, he pointed out that the next rockets are already in production, with a new Falcon 9 rolling off the line every three to four months.

"It's not like this is just some one-off demonstration," he told me. "There's a lot of weight placed on this first Falcon 9 flight, and there should be. But it's most important to bear in mind that there's a whole production line of vehicles coming out after that."

During our interview, Musk not only discussed the upcoming launch but also touched upon the bigger picture for SpaceX and spaceflight. Here's an edited Q&A:

Cosmic Log: How has SpaceX's intiative been received, in the wake of the White House visit and the things that Sen. Shelby had to say? Has that complicated your life, or do you just try to keep your head down?

Elon Musk: It has complicated our life here at SpaceX, I suppose in a good way. That is, the president's decision to go with commercial astronaut transport in addition to commercial cargo transport ... we view that as a good thing.

Q: You've said that the change in policy could be as important as President Kennedy's "We Choose to Go to the Moon" speech. ...

A: Yeah, and the emphasis is on "could." If it does indeed herald a new era for spaceflight, and if it does indeed result in space being opened up to the masses, then I think it's fair to say that it would have an importance comparable to that of JFK's speech. Of course, the jury is out. That actually has to happen. But I think it will.

Q: But when it comes to the criticism you've been facing, I assume you have things that you would say to members of Congress, to reassure them about SpaceX's role. What are you telling people when they raise questions?

A: I think it's certainly a fair question to raise. But the thing that the opponents of the cancellation of Constellation have tried to do is, they've engaged in the classic straw-man fallacy, which is to reconstruct the other side's argument in a way that is intentionally weak or impaired and then knock it over. They do that by using SpaceX and saying, "This is all dependent on SpaceX." Which is ridiculous.

Of course, the biggest beneficiaries of commercial crew transport are going to be Boeing and Lockheed, and their Atlas and Delta vehicles. They've had something like 40 successes in a row. Delta and Atlas launch all the Air Force and NRO [National Reconnaissance Office] satellites, and they in fact launch all the NASA spacecraft. Moreover, before [former NASA Administrator] Mike Griffin came along, Atlas and Delta were planned to be the lifters for the successor to the space shuttle. The thing is that it's much harder for Constellation's proponents to attack the Atlas and Delta than to attack Falcon 9, which has not yet launched.

I think the proper response to people who ask whether this is the best way to go forward is to say, "Absolutely." It's the only way to go forward, because in the best-case situation, Ares 1 and Orion might be ready in ... 2016? So that's six years of depending on the Soyuz. You have to say, would commercial do it better? OK, you've got United Launch Alliance saying they can get it done in three or four years. We're saying we can do it in three years. Orbital Sciences is saying they can do it. All of these time frames are less than that required for the first flight of Ares 1 and Orion. If Boeing and Lockheed are saying they can do it, and they're launching these rockets right now, then I think probably they will succeed.

And then, as it was put by [XCOR Aerospace CEO] Jeff Greason on the Augustine Commission, and seconded by [former astronaut] Sally Ride, "Constellation is so expensive that even if Santa Claus gave it to us tomorrow for free, the operating costs are so high that the next thing we'd have to do is cancel it." The real question people should be asking is not "Should we be canceling Constellation?" It's "Why wasn't Constellation canceled sooner?" Why would you embark upon something where success was not one of the possible outcomes?

Q: But it sounds as if elements of the Constellation program are being picked up again as time goes on. For example, now Orion is being supported as a lifeboat space vehicle, and the White House wants to push forward with the heavy-lift rocket development program. Some people are even talking about reviving Ares 1 hardware as a step toward heavy-lift development. If Congress decides to keep Constellation going under another name, does that affect anything you do?

A: Well, the problem with Constellation hardware is that it's incredibly expensive. So if they continue those tests, then one of two things has to happen. They'd have to increase the NASA budget considerably, or they'd have to delay any replacement for the Soyuz. Which will it be?

Q: And I suppose that would impact SpaceX, because Congress could say, "Well, instead of giving $6 billion to commercial providers, let's give them $4 billion and use $2 billion to keep Constellation around."

A: I just don't see the point of keeping Ares 1 around. You have to ask, "Is success possible with Ares 1?" And if it isn't, why are we bothering?

Q: I'm sure a lot of people ask you why commercial providers, including Boeing and Lockheed and yourself, would be able to do this cheaper than NASA. That gets to the safety question: "Well, it takes more money to get up to the safety standards that NASA requires." What's your answer to that "why" question?

A: First of all, the answer there is that all of our air transport and road transport is managed by the private sector. And air transport has become incredibly safe. People have forgotten that what airlines used to compete on was actually their safety record, first and foremost. And then cost only afterward. It just got to the point that commercial airlines are so safe that saying you're safe is pointless. Everyone is safe.

The thing that people probably don't realize is that commercial will be much safer than government. And it'll be much cheaper, just as it is in the airline business: Who in their right mind would prefer to fly on Soviet Aeroflot vs. Southwest Airlines? One is a government monopoly, and the other is a competitive commercial entity.

Q: Are you finding that a lot of the people who have been involved in the Constellation effort are aiming to come over to SpaceX? Is there a shift in personnel, or at least in the number of applications that you're getting?

A: Yeah, we've actually gotten a lot of resumes from people working in the Constellation program. We've hired quite a few of them, and expect to do more of the same.

Q: Any numbers you can share on how you expect employment to change at SpaceX?

A: We expect SpaceX employment to rise from what it is right now, which is just under 1,000 employees, to several thousand employees eventually. But of course that's a function of what business we have. If we are doing a lot of astronaut transport, then our employment numbers will be much higher than if we're not. We can't afford to go hire a whole bunch of people in the hope that we'll have astronaut transport. We have to get from here to there.

Q: How does this all fit in with your grand plan? You've talked many times about how you'd like to see humanity become a multiplanet species. Do you feel as if you're getting closer to this goal as a result of new space policies?

A: Yes, I'm still focused on extending life beyond Earth, and that's why commercial crew is so important. I really think commercial crew could be as important as the decision to outsource air mail in the 1920s. That's what got Charles Lindbergh going, and all the other early airline pilots. If the Post Office hadn't outsourced air mail, I think there would have been a huge delay in the advent of everyday air travel.

So commercial crew is actually an important change, and will be really helpful. In the absence of this, we're going to have to try to self-fund all the way on crew transport. That's a much slower process, and there's greater financial risk. I think we'll succeed, but it's going to take us a much longer time.

Q: Are you feeling any extra pressure because of all this, focusing on the first launch? Or is it the same level of pressure you always feel?

A: We're probably red-lining on pressure. It certainly doesn't help. But people should know that SpaceX is around for the long haul. If the first launch goes well, that's great, we'll go on to the second launch. And if the first launch doesn't go well, we'll still go on to the second launch. ... People should take a look at my track record and realize that I always come through in the end. It may take more time than I expected, but I'll always come through.

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