MOGUL EYES SPACE COAST FOR ROCKET'S MISSION
Entrepreneur aims for an economical gateway to space
Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk is on the cell phone at the edge of the Great Prairie in Texas, and he's talking about a revolution in the space launch industry, one he intends to bring to Cape Canaveral by the end of next year. A stiff, changing wind is whipping near his engine test facility, creating flapping ripples of background noise. But his South African accent and his new aim in life are crystal clear.
One of the richest people in America under age 40, Musk is pouring a significant portion of his personal fortune into building rockets that are both reliable and inexpensive. It's a Holy Grail that neither NASA nor the aerospace industry has been able to grasp in six decades of spaceflight. But Musk -- who co-founded PayPal, the electronic payment giant bought by eBay for $1.5 billion -- says it's "common fallacy" that it can't be done.
"If you look at something like a Ferrari, that's a real expensive car. But it's not reliable. In fact, a friend of mine bought a Ferrari and it broke down on the way home from the dealer," he said. "But I guarantee you, if you went out and bought your basic Chevy or a Honda Civic or something like that, your odds are 1,000 to 1 that sucker doesn't break down the first year you own it. And it's not expensive."
A 33-year-old who cruises around southern California in a $1.2 million gull-winged McLaren F1 -- the fastest production car on the planet -- Musk now is building rockets designed to rival Japanese autos in reliability. The Falcon 1 and Falcon 5 -- which he plans to fly out of Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station -- also will be extraordinarily cheap. The smaller Falcon 1 will cost customers about $6 million. Its closest competitor -- the Orbital Sciences Corp. Pegasus rocket -- costs about $25 million. A launch on a medium-sized Falcon 5 can be had for about $18 million -- or about 60 to 70 percent less than Boeing Delta 2 and Delta 4-Medium vehicles now delivering comparable payloads. The bargain-basement pricing is a direct attack on the high cost of space launch.
"It's going to shake up the industry pretty strongly," said Gwynne Shotwell, vice president of business development for Musk's rocket company, SpaceX of El Segundo, Calif. "But that's the American way. That's good for this business."
Musk aims to capture a share of a commercial industry that generates an estimated $4 billion in annual revenue. Whether he can rock aerospace giants like Lockheed Martin and Boeing remains to be seen. The success rate of past space launch start-ups is dismal. His track record, however, is phenomenal. By the time he was 28, Musk already had started up and sold Zip2, a company that created the technology to put newspaper-style ads and city directories on the Internet. Compac bought the firm for $307 million. Musk's take was in the tens of millions. His next hurrah was PayPal, a company that created a way to transfer money from one account to another over the Internet. The eBay Internet auction company bought PayPal in 2002. Musk walked away with stock that would be worth more than a half-billion dollars today.
Flush with big bucks, Musk set out to do something philanthropic. A space enthusiast, he wanted to build an inexpensive Mars rover to peak public interest in planetary exploration. "I did a little feasibility study about a low-cost Mars lander. I mean, very low-cost -- $20 million," he said. Then he found out it would cost $50 million to launch his $20 million spacecraft. "It sort of became clear to me what the real nature of the problem was. It was the cost of launch," said Musk. "There are a lot of exciting, interesting things you can do in space if the launch costs are reasonable. But they're not."
That was the genesis of SpaceX, a cost-conscious company on a mission to reduce sky-high launch prices by a factor of 10. Its roots are attached to Musk's belief that space exploration is critical to the survival of the human species, and that there ought to be hotels in orbit, colonies on the moon and expeditions flying to Mars by now.
"I've always thought that space is important to the future of humanity. I think it's important that we one day become a space-faring nation, and I just didn't see that happening by itself. I just didn't see that from Boeing or Lockheed or big aerospace companies," Musk said. "So that's really why I started SpaceX -- to really lower the cost of access to space, initially for satellites but eventually for human space travel. And the goal is to one day -- although it will take a lot of time and effort -- to make space accessible to your average citizen."
Shotwell said he's entirely serious. "You can't question his integrity, and he's spending an unbelievable amount of his own personal money to fund this venture -- not necessarily with economic motives in mind," she said.
"This is as much a philanthropic endeavor for him as it is a financial one. He's never said this, but my guess is he wants a place in history as doing something good for people."
Sidebar: ELON MUSK UNVEILED
Meet Elon Musk, the man who created Zip2 and PayPal
Native of: South Africa.
Parents: Father, a South African engineer; mother, a Canadian nutritionist who also models for fun.
Left home: At age 17 to go to Kingston, Ontario, where he enrolled in Queen's University, "The Harvard of The North." Got by on part-time and summer jobs.
The reason: Avoid compulsory service in South Africa's apartheid army, fascist in his mind. But, "I'm very much pro-military when it is in the service of good."
Goal at the time: Come to the U.S. "It is where great things are possible. I am nauseatingly pro-American."
Mission accomplished: Transferred to The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania. "Tuition costs are outrageous . . . Fortunately, they gave me a scholarship . . . so I only had to cover living expenses, books, etc., by working."
Earned: A bachelor's in Economics. Stayed an extra year, got a bachelor's in physics.
Graduate school: "My area of interest was cross-disciplinary, focused on the physics of high energy density capacitors, which is a mixture of quantum physics and materials science."
Crucial crossroads: Accepted at Stanford University. Spent two days on campus. Dropped out before classes began. Started Zip2, creating a way to put newspaper-style ads on the Internet.
Had requested: A deferral for one quarter. "Most companies fail, so I figured it would be a learning experience and I didn't have anything to lose. "
His graduate adviser: "He said I'd never come back, and that was the last conversation we had. I should look him up one of these days."
Sold: Zip2 for $307 million.
Next: Started and sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in stock.
Now cruises in: A $1.2 million gull-winged McLaren F1, a street-legal supercar that shares many components with an exotic Formula 1 racer. The fastest production car on the planet.
Current endeavor: Building inexpensive but reliable rockets to spur planetary exploration and open the space frontier to average citizens.