NationStates Jolt Archive

PaaayPaaal In Spaaaace!

05-02-2006, 15:39
COMMENTARY: Another private space venture, this one with an emphasis on simplicy, cost-effectiveness and very long-term goals! The article talks not only about the PayPal founder who is behind "Space-X," but about the others who are approaching this frontier from slightly different angles. Another example of how competition drives progress, or just silly rich guys with too much time on their hands?

A Bold Plan to Go
Where Men Have Gone Before (

Published: February 5, 2006

Rocket Science ASK Elon Musk what he wants to do with his life — after having amassed a $300 million fortune from the Internet — and the answer is surprising. At 34, he says he is too young to retire. Philanthropy is a bit staid. Starting another Web-based venture is hardly a challenge, not for a man who bought the idea for PayPal, built it up and then sold it to eBay for $1.5 billion.

In seeking a new direction in life that would be as ambitious as his dreams, Mr. Musk has picked a doozy: cheap and reliable access to space.

Making money from space is a road that several other self-made millionaires have traveled, from a Texas banker named Andrew Beal to one of Microsoft's co-founders, Paul G. Allen. There have been enough of them to warrant a mocking nickname: "thrillionaires." And so far their efforts have either ended in failure or have been just ventures in "space tourism" that brought test pilots to the fringe of space.

Mr. Musk wants more, and he has put $100 million of his fortune on the line to try to get it. His goal is to make a business out of inexpensively launching satellites into orbit. Inexpensive, of course, is a relative term, in a business where launchings of private commercial weather, telecommunications and other payloads start at $30 million and go up to $85 million or more.

Through his company, Space Explorations Technology, or SpaceX, Mr. Musk wants to send things to space for one-third of the going rate or less — even bringing down the price to $7 million for small payloads to low Earth orbit — with a series of simple rockets of his own design. His goal is to build a Volkswagen of the cosmos, a bare-bones and dirt-cheap rocket that will go into space and return, to be used again and again. Commercial launchings currently cost $5,000 to $10,000 per pound of payload; Mr. Musk says his simple rockets could do it for $1,000 a pound.

His first rocket, the Falcon 1, is a two-stage, liquid fuel design that is scheduled to lift off on Wednesday from a United States Army facility on Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands. On board will be a 43-pound satellite, the FalconSAT-2, which was designed by Air Force Academy cadets to study the ionosphere.

THE launching has been postponed twice for technical reasons, but if it succeeds, it will move SpaceX closer to filling some of the $200 million in firm launching orders already placed by the Pentagon, foreign governments and private companies.

Less clear is whether a success will also silence the many skeptics who have seen wealthy space dreamers fail in the past.

"This is an enormously difficult business to make money in," said John E. Pike, a space policy analyst at GlobalSecurity.Org, a nonprofit group in Alexandria, Va., that analyzes national security issues. "The best way to make a small fortune in space is to start out with a large one. New rocket science has a high mortality rate, and we don't know what he's got his hands on until he's flown it a half-dozen times."

Part dreamer and part realist, Mr. Musk says he was drawn to the project not only because he has long been fascinated by space — he has a degree in physics from the University of Pennsylvania — but also because he sees a market opportunity in America's declining share of the world's satellite-launching business.

In the commercial market, the United States' two big rocket giants, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, have been priced out by lower-cost competitors from Russia, Ukraine and France. Lockheed's Atlas 5 had only one commercial order in 2005, compared with 22 in 1998. Boeing has withdrawn its Delta 4 rocket from the commercial market and relies exclusively on business from the United States government.

At stake is a market that was worth $4 billion last year, when governments and businesses paid for 55 launchings, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Of those, 18 were commercial, with a value of $1 billion.

American companies compete for commercial orders only by teaming with foreign partners — often former cold-war foes. Lockheed has teamed up with Khrunichev State Research of Russia to form International Launch Services, which mainly uses Russia's Proton rockets. Boeing has joined with several nations to form a consortium called the Sea Launch; it uses the Ukrainian Zenit 3SL to put up commercial payloads.

Mr. Musk says he wants to develop an all-American option that will be price-competitive and break the duopoly of Lockheed and Boeing on contracts with the federal government. Ultimately, he wants to send people into space, to the moon and beyond.

"We have to do something dramatic to reduce the cost of getting to space," said Mr. Musk in an interview in his cubicle at SpaceX's offices here. "If we can get the cost low, we can extend life to another planet.

"I want to help make humanity a space-faring civilization," he said with disarming — or alarming — candor.

[ This article is three pages long. To read the rest of the article, go here ( ]
05-02-2006, 15:43
On a completely irrelevant note: he must have been pissed by the headline. Sure, it's the truth, but it sounds so...mocking. :p
05-02-2006, 15:45
On a completely irrelevant note: he must have been pissed by the headline. Sure, it's the truth, but it sounds so...mocking. :p
LOL! True, but he's a billionaire. He can afford to smile at headlines ... or buy the paper, whichever he chooses. :D