Musk’s approach to spaceflight began with a simple conclusion: without leaving Earth, humanity could easily become extinct through disasters natural or otherwise. Only by leaving Earth, then, could survival of the species be assured.
Prior to his arrival, the spaceflight industry had stagnated. Run by giant, entrenched contractors at the behest of national governments, the companies were able to accomplish amazing feats, in the process running up astonishing costs. As a result of arguments surrounding budgets, national security and the high-technology workforce, spacecraft innovators were largely resigned to working with and within the moribund industry.
By his own account, Musk started SpaceX as a way to diminish what he sees as the main barrier to widespread human spaceflight – the cost of launch. After exploratory discussions with companies from all over the globe, Musk concluded that the most effective method would simply be to found his own company and build his own launch vehicles. As many parts as possible would be built in-house to guarantee cost, quality and intellectual property.
Using his own fortune and privately raised capital, Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 and hired crucial team members, including president Gwynne Shotwell and Tom Mueller as vice-president of propulsion development. Within four years, the company was launching the Falcon 1 off Kwajalein Island in the Pacific Ocean – or trying to, at least. The first three Falcon launches failed, a problem that may have ended lesser programmes.
In spite of these failures, SpaceX under Musk continued to design ever-larger rockets. The Falcon 9 – essentially nine Falcon 1 engines bundled together – flew in 2010, at once catapulting SpaceX from unknown but promising smallsat launcher to a business competitive with any space launch company in the world.
Not long after, SpaceX entered and won a NASA competition to develop an uncrewed capsule for ferrying supplies to the International Space Station. Shortly thereafter the company won another competition for a more complex crewed capsule (and has subsequently won two similar competitions for further development).
Even though Falcon 9 remains in some ways unproven – it has yet to make a launch to
geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), for example – the pace of innovation has not slowed.
Substantial modifications have been made to the Falcon 9, and all further launches will be of the second generation, termed until recently version 1.1. In 2011, Musk announced the Falcon 9 Heavy, three Falcon 9 cores bolted together into what will be by far the heaviest launch vehicle on the market. Already flying is the Grasshopper, essentially a Falcon 9 engine and fuel tank, for testing reusable technologies. The Falcon 9-Reusable (F 9-R) recently made its first appearances on the engine test stand, with nine Falcon engines burning away, a testbed for turning a Falcon 9 into a reusable rocket. The design effort is under way for an even larger launch vehicle, rivalling or surpassing the most capable rockets ever built. Humanity has never built a fully-reusable launch vehicle, but Musk has made it his central goal. Under Musk’s leadership, few doubt SpaceX’s ability to bring these vehicles to fruition.
Lowering the cost of launch via reusability is one thing, but Musk has not stopped there. He has been forthright about another goal – colonising Mars. Though formerly the sole territory of science fiction, and more recently the subject of great speculation and investment, Musk has consistently stated that his goal is “to die on Mars, though hopefully not on impact”.
Even competitors and disgruntled former colleagues call Elon Musk a genius and a visionary. Though his achievements extend to helping build electric cars, solar panels, peer-to-peer transactions and more, it is SpaceX that shows the most promise to change the course of humanity.
Musk’s achievements have invigorated the launch vehicle industry and provided a stellar example to starting entrepreneurs. Perhaps most importantly, SpaceX’s full influence has yet to be felt.
For his leadership of SpaceX and subsequent transformation of the launch vehicle industry, Elon Musk wins Flightglobal’s 2013 Leader of the Year Award.