“Five, four, three...” At T-minus three seconds white flames explode from the 22-story rocket. “Two, one. Liftoff.” The night sky erupts with light and fire and clouds of smoke, as nine engines generating 1,320,000 pounds of thrust push the vehicle skyward at NASA’s storied Cape Canaveral launchpad. The road to orbit is short but marked with a series of technical miracles, and the rocket hits them all: 17,000 miles per hour to break from Earth’s atmosphere. First and second stage separation. Second stage ignition. In minutes it’s over: The capsule carrying 1,000 pounds of cargo is in orbit, racing toward a docking with the International Space Station, itself traveling so fast it circles the Earth 15 times a day, the second such flight of the Falcon 9 and its Dragon capsule since May. “It proves that we didn’t just get lucky the first time around,” says the rocket’s chief designer, Elon Musk. “Next year we expect four to five launches, the year after that eight to ten, and the launch rate will increase by 100 percent every year for the next four to five years.” At that rate Musk, a self-taught engineer and Internet whiz kid, will be launching more rockets than even China or Russia.
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There are few things more difficult than putting something into orbit. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the space shuttle—we think of rockets and we think of the oldest, most staid monoliths: the U.S. government. NASA. Lockheed. Boeing. Space, a frontier so dangerous, so daunting, so complex and impossible, that it belongs not to the realm of lone adventurers and daring entrepreneurs, but to the combined might of the most powerful military industrial complex in the world. Except this rocket wasn’t built or launched by the U.S. government, or even Lockheed or Boeing, but by guys in surfer shorts and T-shirts, overseen by an Internet millionaire. Its flight was historic: the first privately designed, built and launched cargo resupply mission to the ISS. Or, put another way, since the retirement of the space shuttle, a small start-up company’s rocket and space capsule, which cost roughly one-tenth of a space shuttle launch to launch, has become the United States’ sole means of reaching the $100 billion space station. “Our first order of business,” says Musk, sitting in his cubicle in Hawthorne, California, “is to defeat the incumbent, old school rocket companies. Lockheed. Boeing. Russia. China. If this is a chess game, they don’t have much of a chance.”
Musk wants to fundamentally alter the way we travel, the energy we consume and our legacy as earthbound human beings. Listening to the self-confident and boyish 41-year-old wearing blue jeans and a black and white checked shirt rocking back and forth in his Aeron chair, he sounds ridiculous: He talks about nuclear fusion and colonizing Mars and airplanes that take off vertically. You want to slap him, put him in his place, or just laugh and dismiss him, which is what the aerospace industry did when he first announced plans to disrupt an industry so technically difficult and capital intensive that it has belonged to the world’s richest governments.
But Musk looked skyward and said he could build a rocket that would put cargo and humans into orbit cheaper and more reliably than any nation or corporation had ever done before, and that he could do it faster than any other private company. Today he is CEO and chief designer at Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, whose Dragon space capsule first docked with the International Space Station in May in a test flight, a feat achieved by only three nations and the European Space Agency—and, for now, the United States’ sole means of reaching the ISS without foreign help. SpaceX has sent five rockets into orbit, has $1.6 billion in contracts from NASA, 45 launches on order and employs 2,000 people designing and building more rocket engines than any other company on earth.
When he’s not launching rockets, Musk is disrupting the notoriously obdurate automobile industry (see National Treasure, p. 42). While industry giants like Chevrolet and Nissan and Toyota were dithering with electric-gasoline hybrids, this upstart kid said he would design and manufacture an all-electric car that would travel hundreds of miles on a single charge. The Tesla Roadster hit the streets in 2008 with a range of 200 miles, and the far more functional Model S, starting at $57,000, was introduced in June. It’s the world’s first all-electric car that does everything my old gasoline version does, only better. The high-end model travels 300 miles on a single charge, leaps from zero to 60 in 5.5 seconds, slows from 60 to a dead stop in 105 feet, can seat up to five, has room for mulch bags and golf clubs, handles like a race car and its battery comes with an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty. If you charged it via solar panels, it would run off the sun. One hundred a week are being produced in a former Toyota factory in Fremont, California, and nearly 13,000 people have put deposits on them.
As if the space and cars weren’t enough to tackle, Musk is simultaneously trying to revolutionize the energy industry as well. He is the biggest investor and chairman of the board of Solar City, one of the largest suppliers of solar energy technology and a key piece of his aim to change not just energy consumption, but energy production.
Musk’s rocket docking with the space station on only its second flight required a “sequence of miracles that was a phenomenal achievement,” says Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former Navy test pilot, a veteran of four NASA space shuttle missions and president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
“Musk said here’s what I’m going to do and he did it,” says Gen. Jack Dailey, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “He’s the real thing and that’s pretty clear now.”
Complex pieces of technology are tools, and tools are best thought of as extensions of human hands, which are themselves just extensions of the human mind. And the mind behind Tesla and SpaceX is a self-taught engineer and pioneer of shopping on the Internet. A few steps away from Musk’s cube in a cavernous building where Boeing 747s used to be made are huge extruded aluminum tubes that will soon be rocket bodies, and clean rooms filled with snaking stainless steel that is the heart of rocket motors. This is no Internet dream, no plan, no raw idea, but a place where hundreds of smart, young engineers have been unleashed by Musk, a guy who dropped out of a graduate program in applied physics at Stanford in 1995 to create a company, Zip2, with his brother, Kimbal, which they sold to Compaq Computer for $300 million. His next company, X.com, became PayPal and he was the largest shareholder when it was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion.