Elon Musk Is Betting His Fortune on a Mission Beyond Earth's Orbit
May 22, 2007
By Carl Hoffman
Inside a truck trailer, surrounded by half a dozen flat-screen monitors mounted on carpeted walls, Elon Musk eats Starburst candy with the intensity of a kid on Halloween. He's hunched over in his chair, focusing on the TV that displays a live video feed of a 70-foot-tall rocket ship surrounded by palm trees. The trailer is parked in El Segundo, California, behind the headquarters of Musk's company, Space Explorations Technology, or SpaceX. Ten engineers are sitting with him, each facing a laptop displaying the status of systems on the rocket, Falcon 1 . They're linked by a satellite feed to the launch site, a half- mile-square speck of equatorial rock and coral called Omelek. It's really just a concrete launchpad, an air-conditioned hangar, and a double-wide trailer that's both office and sleeping quarters for the techs. Omelek, 5,400 miles from Southern California, is one of the Marshall Islands, the dead center of the Pacific Ocean.
In 30 minutes if everything goes according to plan, the Falcon will be in orbit above Earth — something so difficult that it has always been the province of nations, not entrepreneurs like Musk.
The palm trees on the monitor sway in the stiff tropical wind. The voice of the launch conductor comes over the trailer's speaker system and into the engineers' headsets: "Start the terminal sequence at T minus 10 minutes." The conductor is on Kwajalein, an island 22 miles down the atoll from Omelek. "Attention all stations: In 30 seconds, we will be at T minus 10 minutes and counting," she says. "Fifteen. Ten. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Mark."
At T minus 10 minutes, the ground computer takes over.
"Flight terminal safety officer, switch from external to internal power."
The strongback, the gantry holding the rocket in place, folds down and away. Musk pops another Starburst into his mouth.
"T minus two minutes and counting. Launch director, verify SpaceX is green."
"SpaceX is green."
Then the conductor's voice goes tense: "Terminal count abort!"
The clock stops. The ground computer decides it's not going anywhere, thank you. Musk stands and looks over at Tom Mueller, his vice president of propulsion. "What's the abort?"
Mueller shrugs. They're still getting telemetry from the rocket.
But Musk is in no mood to be patient. He's spent $100 million to get to this moment. The flight has been delayed for months. There's a CNN cameraman in the trailer; the world is watching.
Minutes later, word comes back from launch control: The computer has detected a leaky fuel valve, but other data shows the valve isn't leaking. It could be just a software error, but Falcon I runs on kerosene and liquid oxygen — it's basically a tall, skinny bomb with a pointy nose. Flight director Tim Buzza wants to drain the fuel before addressing the problem, but that could delay launch for another day, maybe more.
"Is there a work-around?" Musk asks via the intercom.
"Only way to fix the issue is to detank," Buzza says.
"Can we ignore the abort?"
Buzza won't allow a shortcut. "The vehicle would be in what's called safe state, but it's not really safe. It's full of fuel, and we'd be totally blind."
"For how long? Seconds? Minutes?" Musk asks.
"Thirty seconds, but I don't think we should do it."
"Let's give it a shot."
"Look," Buzza says, "as launch director I'm extremely uncomfortable putting the vehicle, fully fueled, into a safe state." Buzza orders the fuel drained.
"Wait a second, Tim," Musk says, pacing. He's a gazillionaire, a master of the universe, the guy who started PayPal and flipped it to eBay for $1.5 billion, the guy who built the first viable electric sports car. He gets stuff done. "Tim? Tim! If we can launch today, why are we scrubbing?"
But he's powerless, stuck half a world away from the action. Buzza cancels the launch. Musk plops back into his chair, shakes his head, and begins frantically sending messages on his BlackBerry.
Five years ago, Musk was just another lucky young Internet lion starting a commercial space company. But he was more audacious than his peers — he wouldn't be satisfied with a quick, touristy trip to the edge of Earth's atmosphere, like the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne . That rocket, and the passenger version that will make up Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic fleet, goes just over 60 miles high. And still it took the aeronautical genius of Burt Rutan and $20 million from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen to get SpaceShipOne up and down. Musk wants to fly resupply missions — with astronauts! — to the International Space Station, at 250 miles up in low Earth orbit.
That's a much more difficult task. It is, as they say, rocket science. In the history of spaceflight, only eight countries and the European Space Agency — plus a handful of private companies — have reached orbit independently, yet Musk said he could do it cheaper and make a profit. He'd run his company like an Internet startup, unleash the power of the market onto the final frontier. He would launch a new age in space exploration — if SpaceShipOne was the Wright Flyer, the Falcon 1 would be the Ford Trimotor.
But first he's got to get the thing off the ground. At the dawn of the space age, between 1957 and 1966, the US sent 429 rockets into orbit; a quarter of them failed. Musk is 36 years old and has spent a fortune to build the world's first privately funded, orbit-capable vehicle to take passengers into space. And now it's sitting on its launchpad, going nowhere. Worse, it's already failed once.
On March 24, 2006, a year before this aborted liftoff, Musk was on Kwajalein, hunkered down behind a cheap wooden desk in a windowless concrete control room. The launch had been scrubbed four times since November 2005. Musk had flown in from California to make it happen.
At T minus one minute, the Falcon 1 switched to its computerized launch sequence. A spark lit, firing a turbo pump spinning at 21,000 rpm, pushing liquid oxygen and kerosene into the Falcon's main engine combustion chamber. A half second later, orange flames exploded from beneath the Falcon — 72,000 pounds of thrust.
"Oh yeah!" someone said softly.
Buzza, a small, tightly wound former college wrestler, was in the bunker, too. He pumped his fist once as he kept his eyes glued to the rocket's telemetry on his laptop.
Musk silently watched the video — a feed from a camera on the side of the rocket's second stage. Onscreen, the islet of Omelek dropped away. Then, 36 seconds into flight, the video showed flames flying wildly around the engine. The ground began to wheel. Omelek started coming closer; the Falcon was falling. Then, nothing. The video, the telemetry, it was all dead. The control room was silent.
An hour later, Musk and his top lieutenants — Buzza, Mueller, the range safety officer, and the vice presidents of avionics and structures — got into a helicopter and flew over Omelek. There was a fuel slick just offshore, a few scattered pieces of debris. The rocket's payload — a small satellite built by students at the US Air Force Academy — had crashed through the roof of the island's makeshift machine shop. Falcon 1 was gone.
That night they sat on cheap plastic chairs behind the Snake Pit, Kwajalein's open-air bar, sucking down Budweisers. Big Pacific rollers crashed on the rocky shore a few feet away. Overhead sparkled Orion, and low on the horizon, the Southern Cross. Musk was somber. A few guys were crying. Four years of seven-day workweeks and tens of millions of dollars: blown. Except for Musk, none of these guys were rich. They'd all quit steady, safe jobs at places like Boeing and Lockheed and TRW. Finally Musk spoke, his voice soft, with a trace of Afrikaner lilt: "When we started, we all knew we could fail on the first mission," he said. "But we will build another rocket and try again."
The next morning, at low tide, 45 people in bathing suits walked the reefs around Omelek, picking up pieces. They eventually recovered 75 percent of the vehicle and laid out the parts nose-to-tail in the hangar. Two days later, when the core team piled into Musk's Gulfstream for the flight back to California, they had every bit of the company's video and telemetry data with them. "That," Buzza recalls, "was day one of return-to-flight."
Figuring out what went wrong turned out to be easy. SpaceX's computers had gathered a vast amount of data, and multiple video cameras had recorded the launch from every angle. Buzza and Mueller ran the video during the flight back to California and saw the problem right away. Immediately after liftoff, a small fire had broken out on the first-stage engine — they could see it clearly on the video — and it had grown until the engine simply shut down.
They spread printouts of Falcon's telemetry out on the floor of the plane and pored over them on their hands and knees. For good measure, they also combed data from the rocket's static fire, a test during which the countdown proceeds to engine firing for a brief moment, without launch. "Out of 800 data points, there was one blip," Buzza says. "One line went up in the static fire, and that same line on the launch was flat. And we knew exactly what it was. Exactly."
It was a fuel leak. The night before launch, technicians had unscrewed an aluminum nut from the fuel pump to check how secure it was and then torqued it back down. About seven minutes before liftoff, that nut cracked, having corroded in the salty, humid air.
To be sure — and to placate critics — Musk convened his own accident investigation board, headed by Simon Pete Worden, director of the NASA Ames Research Center. The investigation lasted seven months, time spent in meetings and in the lab, endlessly testing various components. In the end, Worden confirmed what Buzza and Mueller had already supposed. The board said that "plumbing lower B-nut failing by corrosion cracking is the single most plausible leak scenario."
The destruction of Falcon 1 , Musk admitted later, was "a huge blow." But he'd known it was a possibility all along, a potential outcome of the approach he takes to rockets. The space industry was built by huge aerospace companies on government contracts — thousands of people working with hundreds of millions of dollars. Market forces didn't apply. Rockets were launched once and thrown away, high-performance miracles of engineering — race cars. Musk's basic idea was to use his own prodigious fortune to build not touchy Formula One cars but reliable Camrys. Run a company less like Boeing and more like Google — nimble, aggressive, and cheap.
The problem was, in aerospace weight equals money. To save both, SpaceX built Falcon 1 with aluminum fittings rather than stainless steel. SpaceX also chose to launch from Omelek because it's cheaper than Cape Canaveral and because Earth's rotation at the equator gives the rockets an extra push. But that meant the aluminum fittings had been sitting in damp tropical air for 10 weeks. Even Camrys rust.
"That first launch, we accepted the possibility of failure," Buzza said in November, after the crash. "But now we need a success. The stakes are much higher; if we continue to launch and fail, we'll never be accepted."
For a rich guy with a private jet and a million-dollar sports car, Elon Musk is unusually quiet and shy. He is tall, with long arms and big hands and a boyish face that often looks distracted; you can tell the wheels inside his head never quite stop spinning.
Before he founded SpaceX in 2002, Musk created two Internet companies: Zip2, which he sold to Compaq in 1999 for $307 million in cash, and PayPal, which went public shortly before being sold to eBay. Musk, the largest shareholder, was 30 years old, crazy rich, and "tired of the Internet."
Sitting in traffic on the Long Island Expressway in 2001, mulling the problems of the world, Musk started wondering about NASA's plans to send people to Mars. Which, he discovered when he finally reached a computer, didn't exist. Musk was horrified. A native of South Africa, he had earned physics and business degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and dropped out of a graduate program in physics at Stanford. He had always been interested in space, convinced that humans were destined to be a multiplanet species. But where were the Columbuses and da Gamas of the 21st century?
Still on Earth — because going to space is hard. An object in low Earth orbit stays there, 250 miles up, only when the force that put it up there equals the gravity trying to pull it back down. And that force comes from one thing: massive amounts of kinetic energy, also known as speed.
"Look," Musk says, scribbling equations on a notepad, "the energy increases with the square of the velocity. To go 60 miles into suborbital space, like Rutan and the X-Prize, you need to travel at Mach 3. The square of that is 9. But to get to orbit, you need to go Mach 25, and the square of that is 625. So you're looking at something that takes 60 to 70 times more energy. And then, to come back, you need to unwind that energy in a meteoric fireball, and if there's one violation of integrity, you're toast."
To date, only the interests of national security have harnessed the capital and intellectual muscle necessary to get to orbit. "Virtually every rocket that exists today in the US fleet is a legacy of ballistic missiles," says Roger Launius, a historian at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The American and Russian space programs required armies of engineers working with nearly unlimited budgets. The Apollo lunar program cost more than $150 billion in 2007 dollars and took 300,000 people and more than 3 percent of the US federal budget for 1964 through 1966. Even the "cheap," reusable space shuttle is such a thoroughbred that it requires a ground crew of 50,000 and costs $1 billion every time it flies. (It also remains the most dangerous rocket system ever created.)
The handful of private companies that have managed to get something into orbit have basically used hardware developed under government programs. Their services aren't cheap: Lofting a satellite into orbit on a Sea Launch Zenit sets DirecTV or XM Satellite Radio back $50 million to $75 million. Putting a 550-pound payload into low Earth orbit on an Orbital Sciences Pegasus costs the Air Force $30 million. "If we can't figure out how to get to Earth orbit at a much lower price," Launius says, "we'll never be able to do the things we want to do in space." Musk's fee for hauling a 1,400-pound payload: $6.9 million.
The list of companies that have tried and failed to go orbital is long enough to have spawned a hackneyed joke: What's the fastest way to become a commercial space millionaire? Start as a commercial space billionaire. " Moore's law does not apply to rockets," says John Pike, a space analyst at GlobalSecurity.org. "Humanity has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on space exploration in the past half century, and the numbers have not changed: about $10,000 per pound to put something in low Earth orbit. Elon Musk is asserting that his future is going to be remarkably different, and that's a tall claim."
So how will Musk charge half that? "I thought it would be hard, and it's harder than I thought," he admits. "But I want to make rockets 100 times, if not 1,000 times, better. The ultimate objective is to make humanity a multiplanet species. Thirty years from now, there'll be a base on the moon and on Mars, and people will be going back and forth on SpaceX rockets."
The heart of the aerospace world is in little El Segundo, California, just south of Los Angeles International Airport. So that's where Elon Musk went to recruit industry veterans for his fledgling company. Tom Mueller was responsible for liquid propulsion engines at TRW; no one had made bigger, more-powerful liquid-fueled engines. Tim Buzza spent 15 years as lead test manager of Boeing's Delta IV rocket. Chris Thompson, in charge of structural and developmental operations, managed production of the Delta and Titan rockets at McDonnell Douglas and Boeing. "I had a good, comfortable job with Boeing," Thompson says, but he wasn't building spaceships. "When Elon called, I was sitting in my driveway. It was 100 degrees in the car. And two hours later I was on a plane to see him. I figured if I didn't do it, I'd kick myself when I was old."
Then Musk backfilled the company with a stable of the smartest young engineers he could find. He put himself in a cubicle like everyone else, and he personally interviewed every job candidate. New hires all got shares in SpaceX, and everyone was spared the indignities of the corporate world. "Ninety-five percent of what I did at TRW was bureaucracy," Mueller says. "Here, there's none."
Most rocket manufacturers buy engines from established companies — trying to design and build your own is a good way to go broke. But that's what Musk would do. His propulsion system would be made in-house. The team started simple, with a relatively small two-stage rocket powered by compact, durable engines — "Merlin" would lift the first stage, and "Kestrel" the second. It would be capable of lofting 1,400 pounds into low Earth orbit; the first stage would parachute into the ocean to be reused. Everything would be simple and reliable. This was Falcon 1 .
Traditional commercial rockets require launch teams of hundreds of technicians and engineers. In the control room on Kwaj, there are eight people. That's it. With the exception of a few valves on Omelek that need to be turned several hours prior to launch, the rocket is controlled entirely by laptop from Kwajalein. Tap a key and kerosene, liquid oxygen, liquid helium, and nitrogen flow from their storage tanks into the rocket.
And the whole system scales nicely. Strap nine Merlins onto a heavy-lift rocket, 178 feet tall, and you get the Falcon 9 — capable of transporting parts, and eventually astronauts, as far as the International Space Station. "NASA optimizes for performance. We optimize for cost," Mueller says. "They pay five times the cost for the last 5 percent of performance." Musk didn't pinch pennies, but he never stopped emphasizing, in every meeting, cost and simplicity. And, Mueller says, "he mandated this top-level requirement: Test what you fly. Test, test, test. We take every stage to Texas and test it as a whole system."
Seven months after Falcon 1 crashed — but before the aborted liftoff he watched from El Segundo — Musk took a walk around one of SpaceX's five warehouse-sized buildings. Despite the unsuccessful launch, things were going well. He had paying clients lined up for five Falcon 1 flights — DOD and commercial satellite builders. He was on the verge of winning a NASA contract to make three flights to the ISS with his Falcon 9, under construction here in El Segundo. (It was still just sections of aluminum tubing, 12 feet in diameter, waiting to be welded together.)
Then a gleaming piece of burnished metal, an hourglass-shaped nozzle for the Merlin, caught Musk's eye. It was a 4-foot-tall work of art, a single piece of forged copper cut with intricate channels through which fuel would flow to help cool the engine off. It wasn't easy to build, but it could be fired an indefinite number of times, making Musk's rockets reusable. "This is it," he said. "The best, most perfect chamber. We can test it for a couple of bucks a gallon, and then we can fly exactly what was tested."
He turned around and grabbed a piece of the turbopump that propelled the kerosene and liquid oxygen into the combustion chamber — literally the heart of the engine. "This thing pumps 300 pounds of liquid oxygen a second at minus 300 degrees," he said, pretty pumped up himself. "Rocket-grade kerosene goes in at 40 pounds per square inch, and comes out at 1,200 psi spinning at 21,000 rpm! We've developed it ourselves, and no other private company has ever done that. Ever. By next year, we'll be building 30 to 40 rocket engines a year, more than any other company in the US, getting economies of scale that have never been achieved before." Suddenly Musk laughed, a big, throaty guffaw. "I'd never built any hardware at all," he said. "Never. It isn't some tiny little music player, that's for sure!" Take that, Steve Jobs.
Fixing the b-nut corrosion problem was pretty simple. SpaceX replaced all the aluminum on the new Falcon 1 with stainless steel. The team added fireproof baffling around the engines, and instead of letting the rocket stand on the pad outside, they started keeping it in the Quonset hut until a few days before liftoff.
But most important, SpaceX revamped its launch software. Computers had recorded the fuel leak that destroyed the first rocket, but in the last few frantic moments before launch, no one had noticed. In the new system, the rocket switches to an automated sequence 10 minutes before launch. The computers monitor 800 parameters, like tank pressures and fuel temperatures, just as they always have. But now, if any of them measures something wrong, the countdown is automatically aborted without human intervention.
Throughout 2006, the design reviews went on. Buzza, Mueller, and the other engineers eventually made 112 changes to the rocket and the launch sequence. These ranged from ensuring that the pad-preparation crew got adequate rest to making the avionics system more robust to having a quality-assurance person sign off on rocket-prep procedures. Some layers of bureaucracy, it was clear, were necessary after all.
Once the engineers were done, they spent three months testing their modifications — fueling and detanking and running through the launch sequence until, in March 2007, SpaceX brought the new Falcon 1 to a clean static fire. They had rebuilt their rocket.
The abort yesterday marked the first attempt at return-to-flight. But today, almost exactly a year after the accident, Falcon is ready to go again. The weather on Omelek is hot and bright, the sun a blazing yellow. The breeze once more blows through palm trees surrounded by the endless blue of the Pacific Ocean.
Back on the island of Kwajalein, the Falcon ground crew population has doubled to include observers from the Air Force and Darpa (the Pentagon's research arm). The military is looking for technology that will give it "operational responsiveness" — jargon for launching cheap rockets fast, should someone suddenly start attacking US satellites. "Elon has this very clear and very big vision, backed up with his own money," says John Antonnen, Darpa's rep for the mission. "All these other startup companies have tried to depend on government contracts, and it's not enough. They simmer along and never get anywhere. But Elon has built the first new rocket and launch system in 30 years, and that's radical. The technology is simple, but the software and launch system is not — it's cutting-edge. I mean, a tiny crew in T-shirts and flip-flops is operating the rocket from 20 miles away."
Musk, for his part, is back in the trailer in El Segundo. The rocket has been refueled, moved back out to the pad. The potential fuel leak turned out to be a software glitch. All systems are, in fact, go.
"On my mark, it will be T minus 10 minutes," the controller says. "Mark."
In a way, history has already been made. It takes NASA months to turn around a space shuttle. Elon Musk has brought a privately built rocket to the launchpad twice in one year. No one has ever done that.
"Vehicle is moving to internal power."
"T minus 60 seconds and counting. Vehicle is in startup."
At T minus 30 seconds, water pours from a system of pipes surrounding the first-stage engine, dampening vibrations.
"Sweet!" someone whispers.
"Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One."
Fire explodes from the rocket; there's nothing to see but orange flame. And then, well, the rocket is still there.
"Terminal count abort," calls the vehicle controller. Musk says nothing.
The engineers know the drill, and they have a ton of data to work with. In moments, the problem is evident: A frigid shot of fuel hit the engine at startup, triggering an automatic abort. Frigid being relative — it was 4 degrees Fahrenheit too cold.
Musk looks weary. Frankly, this is getting ridiculous.
But Mueller has it covered. "What if we drain back fuel on the first stage and reload fast with warm fuel," he says into the headset. "How long will it take?"
The trailer is silent, tense, waiting. Finally, Buzza's voice comes over the comm. "Twenty minutes," he says.
"OK, let's drain back, reload, and go straight into picking up the count at 16 minutes."
That's fast, and it's a bold plan. No one is left on Omelek, and no one has ever recycled a liquid-fueled rocket that quickly. They have to do it remotely, and if they can't make it work fast enough, the fuel will cool off again.
There's another worry. "Have you seen the satellite pics?" a tech asks over the comm from Kwaj. There's a storm front moving in. Sure enough, the video feed shows clouds infiltrating the cobalt sky.
The clock ticks. The rocket's fuel tanks, depicted as red and blue cylinders on the laptops, slowly empty and then start refilling. Musk doesn't pace, doesn't even stand. He is motionless, quiet.
Thirty minutes later, the launch conductor is on: "Verify SpaceX is ready for launch."
Once again, this is it. Musk scoots forward, stares at the video, stares at the laptops displaying the telemetry.
"T minus two minutes and counting. SpaceX is green."
"T minus 60 seconds. Vehicle is in startup."
"Three. Two. One. Zero.
Flames explode from the rocket, a blinding wall of fire. Like magic, the rocket rises. The chief engineer's voice comes over the comm: "We have liftoff."
Musk stands up, expressionless but intent. Screams and shouts of "Yeah!" echo from the offices behind the van.
The smoke clears, and the rocket's onboard video shows Omelek dropping away. At 37,000 feet, the rocket reaches maximum dynamic pressure, known as Max Q, when the vehicle's push through the atmosphere is toughest. It's a crucial moment. "Max Q looks good," someone says. Musk is smiling, biting his lower lip. "Amazing," someone yells.
"Coming up on first-stage separation." A quick burst of flame and the first stage falls away. "Holy Jesus!" someone says. The sky is black, the long second-stage nozzle glowing white-hot. "Awesome!" The team in El Segundo is popping champagne corks.
"I'm going to watch that video for a long fucking time!" Musk says. "Congratulations, guys!"
And then, 300 seconds into flight, the Pacific Ocean a distant blue haze below, the rocket's second stage starts to spin and wobble. It's not supposed to do that. "Catch it, catch it," someone yells. At 480 seconds, it's spinning fast: The video feed shows Earth going round and round like it's in a clothes dryer. The second-stage engine flames out, and the rocket is oscillating and rolling. At 11 minutes and 11 seconds into flight, the video goes blank and the telemetry feeds terminate.
"Fuck," someone says.
"I gotta go talk to people," Musk says, rushing to meet with his engineers.
From 180 miles high and 11,000 miles per hour, the rocket falls back to Earth.
In 1903, Orville Wright managed 12 seconds of powered flight. It wasn't much, but within a year the Wrights were flying for five minutes at a time. Is Musk's 11-minute, two-stage rocket flight as pivotal as that moment? He got his rocket farther into space than any company ever has with an engine designed entirely from scratch.
In the past three decades, many one-rocket commercial space companies have come and gone. Musk will need 20 or so launches before he knows how reliable his technology is — and how much it really costs.
The next morning he's back in his cubicle, sounding upbeat. The mission, he says, was a demonstration to gather data. All the major milestones were met. He doesn't seem to think it's spin. "The biggest mystery was firing the second stage in a vacuum, the one thing you can't really test, and that worked perfectly," Musk says.
The Darpa reps walked away happy — they were most interested in how quickly the rocket could be up and ready for launch. "No one has ever fueled a rocket that fast before," Musk says. He pauses a moment. Shakes his head. Admits how hard the whole thing is. Falls silent again and says, "Imagine building a super-complicated software operating system that has to be perfect, with not a single bug, the first time out. And anyway, Falcon 1 is almost a scale model. It's neat, but it won't change the future of spaceflight. We'll be flying Falcon 9 by next year."
In 2010, NASA plans to retire its fleet of space shuttles. The replacement, the crew vehicle called Orion, doesn't come online until 2015. In the meantime, Musk says, "SpaceX's Falcon 9 will be the only manned US spacecraft." It will be amazing — if he can get it to fly.