World

Elon Musk: On the brink of re-inventing space travel

By Kevin Bloom 7 May 2012

Mars may not be the place to raise your kids, according to Elton John. “In fact, it’s cold as hell,” he continues in Rocket Man. But if South African-born entrepreneur and owner of SpaceX Elon Musk has his way, the average person who saves a bit will soon be able to go there. By KEVIN BLOOM.

The central narrative question of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2, which grossed just under $625-million in 2010, goes something like this: Billionaire inventor Tony Stark has been unmasked as armoured superhero Iron Man and now faces pressure from the government to share his technology with the military. Will he submit? The film was of course built on the success of the first Iron Man, which grossed $585-million in 2008, with Robert Downey Jr in the lead role.

But Downey wasn’t just the talent who’d brought Stark to life on the big screen – thereby earning a bucket of money for everybody involved in the franchise – he was also the guy who’d suggested to Favreau exactly how they were going to make the character believable. “We need to sit down with Elon Musk,” said Downey.

The box office takings say all there is to say about the usefulness of that first encounter. And Downey and Favreau were clearly in it for the long haul, because in the first film a Tesla Roadster appeared briefly in Stark’s underground garage (Musk was co-founder of the company that pioneered the world’s first electric sports car). In the second, Musk made a cameo as a rocket engineer offering to design an electric jetpack.

It was the narrative hook at the centre of Iron Man 2, however, that really drove home the comparison – would Musk give over his invention to the military?

In the event, the Pretoria-born entrepreneur did end up collaborating with the United States government. In December 2008, SpaceX, the company he’d founded in 2002, was awarded a $1.6-billion Nasa contract for 12 flights of its Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.

The first of those flights was due to leave for the ISS on 30 April this year, but was postponed to 7 May due to technical difficulties. On 6 May the world was told that the first-ever mission of a private craft to the station would be postponed again, to 19 May.

“It’s just taking longer than expected to analyse all the data,” Musk told AFP on Sunday. “We need to make sure that the software is going to make the right commands and not endanger the space station.”

There’s no reason to doubt that SpaceX’s most important mission to date will be a triumph. At the age of 40, Musk is not a man who’s failed at much – next to SpaceX and Tesla on his CV, there’s also PayPal (the little internet start-up that he sold in 2002 for $1.5-billion in eBay stock) and Solar City, the largest provider of solar-power systems in the United States.

As for SpaceX’s own successes, in 2009 the company’s Falcon 1 rocket became the first privately funded, liquid-fuelled vehicle to put a satellite into orbit. Whereas docking at the ISS may be a completely different proposition – the Dragon spacecraft must first do a wide loop around the station, then verify that its approach systems can communicate and lock effectively, then go in for the final dock – Musk is confident that the mission, when it’s finally all systems go, will work out as planned.

The next objective is a manned flight to the ISS. The Dragon spaceship can carry seven people, and if Nasa is satisfied with the results of the upcoming unmanned flight, it will use SpaceX’s private services to land American astronauts on the station instead of the facilities of the Russian space programme, which it is currently using while developing its new Orion vehicles.

After that, it’s Mars. In March, Musk told the BBC exactly how far his ambition extends: “My vision is for a fully reusable rocket transport system between Earth and Mars that is able to re-fuel on Mars – this is very important – so you don’t have to carry the return fuel when you go there,” he said.

“The whole system (must be) reusable – nothing is thrown away. That’s very important because then you’re just down to the cost of the propellant.

“We will probably unveil the overall strategy later this year in a little more detail, but I’m quite confident that it could work and that ultimately we could offer a round trip to Mars that the average person could afford – let’s say the average person after they’ve made some savings.”

By then, Favreau may have a storyline for Iron Man 3. As Hollywood has it: “The plot is unknown at this time.” DM



Read more:

  • Mars for the ‘average person’, in BBC Online.

Photo: Elon Musk reacts following the Tesla company’s initial public offering at the NASDAQ market in New York June 29, 2010. Shares of electric carmaker Tesla Motors Inc opened nearly 12 percent above their initial public offering price on Tuesday as investors bet that electric cars would define the future of transportation. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid.

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