Third Time’s the Charm?

Elon Musk tries again to reach orbit, with hopes for low-cost spaceflight riding on the outcome.

Falcon 1 on the launch pad at Kwajalein. SpaceX

After a month-long delay due to a crack in a fuel nozzle weld, SpaceX—the California-based company founded six years ago by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk—is poised for a third attempt to send its privately developed Falcon-1 rocket into orbit. According to SpaceX, the launch window opens August 1 (Ed. note--changed from July 29), when the 70-foot tall, two-stage Falcon 1 is scheduled to blast off from a U.S. military base on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific.

The hopes of the “New Space” movement will be riding along with it.

In its 2006 inaugural attempt, the Falcon-1 took off and flew for 29 seconds before catching fire and exploding. Fuel leaking past a single rusted nut was to blame. On a second try a year later, the Falcon reached an altitude of more than 180 miles but did not achieve orbit before falling back to Earth. Sloshing fuel in the pressure-fed, second-stage tank had never reached the engine, which ran dry and cut off 90 seconds too soon.

Unlike the previous tries, which were billed as demonstrations, this is not a test. Flight 003, as SpaceX calls it, carries cargo belonging to paying customers: an Air Force satellite called Jumpstart that’s meant to show that small satellites can be built and launched quickly; a test ring adapter for the Malaysian space agency ATSB (a future SpaceX client); and two breadbox-size NASA experiments, one of which aims to be the first solar sail deployed in space.

For Musk, it’s a critical moment in his second career. A co-founder of PayPal with a personal fortune estimated at more than $300 million, the South African native has sunk more than a third of that amount into his 470-person space company. This is not a hobby; SpaceX's manifest lists 14 launches through 2011, all with customers who have contracted for low-cost launches on Falcon 1 and the much larger Falcon 9, which is being built and tested for launch early next year.

Musk aims to use these rockets and their variants to smash the current price to reach orbit. A Falcon-1 launch costs under $8 million, about half the industry average; the Falcon 9 goes for less than $37 million to lift 7,700 pounds to low Earth orbit; a planned Falcon-9 Heavy will be able to lift 62,000 pounds for $94.5 million.

Virtually everyone in the space business wishes SpaceX luck. NASA is a potential customer, and already a partner. The agency has given the company development funds from its COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) initiative, which is trying to foster new ways to resupply the International Space Station after the space shuttle is retired next year. After a rigorous NASA design review involving more than 400 agency personnel, SpaceX was recently awarded an open-ended NASA contract to provide launch services between now and 2012; the arrangement is worth up to $1 billion. (Or, as the fine print says, as little as $20,000—it’s the rocketry equivalent of “Deal or No Deal.”)

Other customers, such as the U.S. Air Force, the Malaysian space agency, Canada’s MDA, Avanti Communications in the United Kingdom, the Swedish Space Corporation, and Bigelow Aerospace, have contracted for launches as well.

If Flight 003 fails, will the customers stick around? Despite the launch mishaps, ground tests have so far given them reason to remain hopeful. Falcon 1 and 9 engine firings and other dynamic tests over the last few months have all succeeded. The fuel baffles in the faulty second stage tank have been reconfigured.

On July 29, if all is ready, Musk will once again enter SpaceX mission control, a semi trailer parked in his huge manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, California. The spartan trailer has a row of Sun computer workstations against one wall, and a raised, carpeted platform and single chair at one end. Musk will watch the screens as his rocket tries for its first undisputed win.

If the Falcon falls short, he has pledged to continue. His words sometimes have a Churchillian ring: “SpaceX will never give up,” he told a gathering of space reporters in mid-May. “I will never give up. Never.”

For the 37-year-old visionary, SpaceX is not just about putting payloads into orbit, or even on the moon. (Though he said recently that a seven-person circumlunar voyage could be achieved for just $80 million.) Musk started this quest with a more ambitious goal—sending men and women to Mars.

In a speech delivered earlier this month to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, he said, “For the first time in the four-billion-year history of Earth, there exists the possibility of extending life beyond Earth to other planets…. It is difficult to predict how long that window will remain open.

“Commercial space transport companies, including possibly SpaceX, are needed to make this happen, as the commercial sector is best suited to optimizing both the cost and reliability of access to space, just as the commercial air and ground transport companies did in their sectors. I believe we will need at least an order (perhaps two orders) of magnitude reduction in present-day space launch costs and flight failures to achieve the goal of becoming a multi-planetary species.”

A lofty goal. But first Musk has to pass the test of reaching Earth orbit. And as he himself has noted, in the rocket business, the only passing grade is 100 percent.