SpaceX's mission is to pick up where NASA left off
Less than four years ago, SpaceX had yet to launch a rocket successfully. Today, the company is on the verge of a historic attempt to send the first private spacecraft to the International Space Station.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk's goals to dramatically lower launch costs and eventually send people to Mars remain ambitious for a company that has reached orbit only four times — the last time nearly 17 months ago.
But many believe a successful launch from Cape Canaveral, targeted now for May 7, and docking at the ISS would represent a paradigm shift in spaceflight operations and validate Musk's conviction that a small, entrepreneurial company could upset the status quo.
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"They're coming in and saying we can do this better, we can do this cheaper, and we're going to make a go of it," said Jim Muncy, a space-policy analyst whose clients include SpaceX. "It is absolutely the quintessential American business story."
Riding on Musk's vision
Musk's wealth, vision and partnership with NASA have propelled SpaceX's rise, from its birth in 2003 through a series of failed launches.
He started the company after making millions from the 2002 sale of the Internet payment service PayPal, which he co-founded.
Interested in flying a science experiment to Mars, Musk explored buying U.S. and Russian rockets but was shocked at the prices.
"If you look at the space industry, the one constant over the last 50 years is the cost of launch — it hasn't changed," said Chris Quilty, an equity analyst at Raymond James in St. Petersburg, Fla., citing a cost of about $10,000 to launch 1 kilogram to orbit.
Musk, 31 at the time, decided he could do better, and committed $100 million of his fortune to the cause.
Starting from scratch, Musk sought to mass-produce rockets using more modern technology and relatively simple, modular designs.
The company's small Falcon 1 rocket would test the liquid-fueled engines that would power both stages of a larger Falcon 9 rocket. Several Falcon 9 boosters could be grouped to create a heavy-lift rocket.
"It was a fresh, new, bold approach to a traditional, archaic aerospace industry," said Space Florida President Frank DiBello, who then led a space venture capital firm.
Visitors to SpaceX's Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters in a former Boeing 747 fuselage factory see Silicon Valley culture being applied to spaceflight.
Musk occupies a cubicle on the factory floor. Vehicle designers and builders work side by side, in a structure less hierarchical than at traditional aerospace contractors like the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
And the company's workforce is noted for the large number of 20-somethings in its engineering corps.
There's no bigger difference than Musk himself, whose business track record and outsize personality lend the company a swagger unusual in the industry.
In addition to being CEO, he takes pride in being "chief designer" of SpaceX's vehicles, which he says is no vanity title.
"There's nobody that knows more about the rocket than I do," he said.
Credit to NASA
Musk credits NASA with helping SpaceX get where it is today.
The space agency in 2006 selected SpaceX as one of two partners to develop commercial cargo resupply services to the station and has paid SpaceX $381 million to date to advance its cargo capability, with another $15 million due if this month's planned flight is a success.
At the end of 2008, not long after SpaceX's first successful Falcon 1 launch, NASA awarded the company a $1.6 billion contract to haul cargo to the space station, providing the relatively new company an anchor customer for years.
A successful Dragon visit to the space station would set the stage for SpaceX to start executing its $1.6 billion resupply contract.
But many challenges remain for the company to achieve its longer-term ambitions.
SpaceX's ability to sustain lower costs depends on a high volume of launches that may not materialize.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, Musk framed the company as an underdog competing against aerospace giants in its larger mission to change the industry, like a little kid fighting sumo wrestlers.
"Every now and again, the little, scrappy company wins," he said.