It all started with the dream of growing a rose on Mars.
That vision, Elon Muskâ€™s vision, morphed into a shake-up of the old space industry, and a fleet of new private rockets. Now, those rockets will launch NASA astronauts from Florida to the International Space Station — the first time a for-profit company will carry astronauts into the cosmos.
Itâ€™s a milestone in the effort to commercialize space. But for Muskâ€™s company, SpaceX, itâ€™s also the latest milestone in a wild ride that began with epic failures and the threat of bankruptcy.
If the companyâ€™s eccentric founder and CEO has his way, this is just the beginning: Heâ€™s planning to build a city on the red planet, and live there.
â€œWhat I really want to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible, make it seem as though itâ€™s something that we can do in our lifetimes and that you can go,â€ Musk told a cheering congress of space professionals in Mexico in 2016.
Musk â€œis a revolutionary changeâ€ in the space world, says Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, whose Jonathanâ€™s Space Report has tracked launches and failures for decades.
Ex-astronaut and former Commercial Spaceflight Federation chief Michael Lopez-Alegria says, â€œI think history will look back at him like a da Vinci figure.â€
Musk has become best known for Tesla, his audacious effort to build an electric vehicle company. But SpaceX predates it.
At 30, Musk was already wildly rich from selling his internet financial company PayPal and its predecessor Zip2. He arranged a series of lunches in Silicon Valley in 2001 with G. Scott Hubbard, who had been NASAâ€™s Mars czar and was then running the agencyâ€™s Ames Research Center.
Musk wanted to somehow grow a rose on the red planet, show it to the world and inspire school children, recalls Hubbard.
â€œHis real focus was having life on Mars,â€ says Hubbard, a Stanford University professor who now chairs SpaceXâ€™s crew safety advisory panel.
The big problem, Hubbard told him, was building a rocket affordable enough to go to Mars. Less than a year later Space Exploration Technologies, called SpaceX, was born.
There are many space companies and like all of them, SpaceX is designed for profit. But whatâ€™s different is that behind that profit motive is a goal, which is simply to â€œGet Elon to Mars,â€ McDowell says. â€œBy having that longer-term vision, thatâ€™s pushed them to be more ambitious and really changed things.â€
Everyone at SpaceX, from senior vice presidents to the barista who offers its in-house cappuccinos and FroYo, â€œwill tell you they are working to make humans multi-planetary,â€ says former SpaceX Director of Space Operations Garrett Reisman, an ex-astronaut now at the University of Southern California.
Musk founded the company just before NASA ramped up the notion of commercial space.
Traditionally, private firms built things or provided services for NASA, which remained the boss and owned the equipment. The idea of bigger roles for private companies has been around for more than 50 years, but the market and technology werenâ€™t yet right.
NASAâ€™s two deadly space shuttle accidents — Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 — were pivotal, says W. Henry Lambright, a professor of public policy at Syracuse University.
When Columbia disintegrated, NASA had to contemplate a post-space shuttle world. Thatâ€™s where private companies came in, Lambright says.
After Columbia, the agency focused on returning astronauts to the moon, but still had to get cargo and astronauts to the space station, says Sean Oâ€™Keefe, who was NASAâ€™s administrator at the time. A 2005 pilot project helped private companies develop ships to bring cargo to the station.
SpaceX got some of that initial funding. The companyâ€™s first three launches failed. The company could have just as easily failed too, but NASA stuck by SpaceX and it started to pay off, Lambright says.
â€œYou canâ€™t explain SpaceX without really understanding how NASA really kind of nurtured it in the early days,â€ Lambright says. â€œIn a way, SpaceX is kind of a child of NASA.â€
Since 2010, NASA has spent $6 billion to help private companies get people into orbit, with SpaceX and Boeing the biggest recipients, says Phil McAlister, NASAâ€™s commercial spaceflight director.
NASA plans to spend another $2.5 billion to purchase 48 astronaut seats to the space station in 12 different flights, he says. At a little more than $50 million a ride, itâ€™s much cheaper than what NASA has paid Russia for flights to the station.
Starting from scratch has given SpaceX an advantage over older firms and NASA that are stuck using legacy technology and infrastructure, Oâ€™Keefe says.
And SpaceX tries to build everything itself, giving the firm more control, Reisman says. The company saves money by reusing rockets, and it has customers aside from NASA.
The California company now has 6,000 employees. Its workers are young, highly caffeinated and put in 60- to 90-hour weeks, Hubbard and Reisman say. They also embrace risk more than their NASA counterparts.
Decisions that can take a year at NASA can be made in one or two meetings at SpaceX, says Reisman, who still advises the firm.
In 2010, a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad had a cracked nozzle extension on an engine. Normally that would mean rolling the rocket off the pad and a fix that would delay launch more than a month.
But with NASAâ€™s permission, SpaceX engineer Florence Li was hoisted into the rocket nozzle with a crane and harness. Then, using what were essentially garden shears, she â€œcut the thing, we launched the next day and it worked,â€ Reisman says.
Musk is SpaceXâ€™s public and unconventional face — smoking marijuana on a popular podcast, feuding with local officials about opening his Tesla plant during the pandemic, naming his newborn child â€œX Ã† A-12.â€ But insiders say aerospace industry veteran Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer, is also key to the companyâ€™s success.
â€œThe SpaceX way is actually a combination of Muskâ€™s imagination and creativity and drive and Shotwellâ€™s sound management and responsible engineering,â€ McDowell says.
But it all comes back to Muskâ€™s dream. Former NASA chief Oâ€™Keefe says Musk has his eccentricities, huge doses of self-confidence and persistence, and that last part is key: â€œYou have the capacity to get through a setback and look … toward where youâ€™re trying to go.â€
For Musk, itâ€™s Mars.
Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter: @borenbears
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