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Internet millionaire takes aim at Mars

PayPal cofounder Elon Musk’s latest enterprise just launched the first privately built liquid-fueled rocket into orbit around the Earth.

By Stephen HumphriesStaff writer / October 15, 2008

Entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, wants to make space launches more affordable. The private firm is vying for a NASA contract to deliver supplies to the International Space Station

Joshua Sudock/Special to The Christian Science Monitor


Hawthorne, Calif.

Every morning, Elon Musk steels himself to once again do battle with gravity. A multimillionaire who made his fortune as cofounder of PayPal, Mr. Musk has spent six years and $100 million of his own money designing rockets for his company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX). In August, he watched helplessly as a design flaw allowed Newtonian forces to triumph over his Falcon 1 – the third failure in as many launches.

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If Musk’s wall-mounted photo of Muham­mad Ali’s first-round, first-minute knockout of Sonny Liston signifies anything, it’s the South African-born entrepreneur’s determination to do things quickly and efficiently. “We did get to space on flights two and three,” says Musk, “but flight three really made me quite sad.” It took a fourth launch on Sept. 28, preceded by a family visit to Disneyland’s Space Mountain to calm Musk’s nerves, for Falcon 1 to become the first privately developed, liquid-fuel rocket to orbit Earth.

Having passed that milestone – or, more accurately, 434 vertical milestones – SpaceX is on a trajectory to revolutionize space transportation. Musk wants to make it more affordable through much cheaper launches. His larger ambition is to transport astronauts in Space X’s rocket capsule, effectively providing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with an alternative to the space shuttle, due to be mothballed in 2010.

But his ultimate aim is Mars. “[Musk] really believes in the future of space, believes that humanity needs to be a space-faring civilization in order to survive long term,” says Bruce Pittman, director of flight projects at the NASA Ames Commercial Space Team/Alliance for Commercial Enterprise and Education in Space.

Despite such grand aspirations, the company’s offices, housed in an opaque building near several airstrips, aren’t ostentatious, and the only concession to flashiness is a sports shoe-like swoosh in the Space X logo. Sitting inside a cubicle where the few personal touches include toy robots and a model of Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis,” Musk says he didn’t set out to start a rocket company. After selling PayPal to eBay in a $1.5 billion stock deal in 2002, he first embarked on an enterprise to spur public interest in Mars.

“I had a feasibility study done on a little project called Mars Oasis, which was to put a small greenhouse with seeds in dehydrated nutrient gel [on the planet’s surface],” says the soft-spoken Musk, who concentrates on interview questions the way Gary Kasparov studies a chessboard.

Musk’s grand vision of green plants against a red backdrop was dashed when he priced out the rocket launch. Too expensive. Believing he could do it more cheaply, he founded SpaceX. Few in Washington took him seriously. So he famously parked a model of a rocket prototype in front of the Federal Aviation Administration building.

In person, Musk isn’t brash or domineering – in that respect, he is neither a modern-day Howard Hughes nor a real-life Tony Stark, even though he’s renowned for his steely resolve. The one-time physics student assumed the role of designer when he was initially unable to hire away top rocket scientists.