April 20, 2009
At 37 years old, Elon Musk is poised to become either the Henry Ford or the Howard Hughes of his generation. If his Falcon rockets and Tesla electric cars succeed, he’ll revolutionize 21st century transportation. If they don’t, he’ll likely be remembered as a colorful, clever, but ultimately irrelevant tinkerer. After all, Neil Young has an electric car, too.
Yesterday was to have marked the start of a new, commercial phase for Musk’s company, SpaceX. So far, nearly all the payloads entrusted to the fledgling Falcon 1 rocket have belonged either to the U.S. Defense Department or NASA, both of whom have a stake in seeing Musk achieve his goal of bringing down launch costs. If the government lost a few inexpensive satellites in the Falcon’s first three failed test flights, what matter? Helping SpaceX build a reliable rocket is considered more important.
But yesterday’s planned launch of a Malaysian satellite—which has been postponed while SpaceX looks into an unspecified “potential compatibility issue” between the spacecraft and the rocket—is for a different kind of customer. RazakSAT, Malaysia’s first Earth observation satellite, cost $41 million to develop, several times what the launcher cost. That’s a lot for a developing country hoping to enter a new high-tech arena, and SpaceX was right to back off from yesterday’s launch and triple-check that everything’s working properly.
Lately it’s been mostly good news for Musk’s six-year-old company. Argentina just signed on to launch two Earth observation satellites on the larger—and still untried—Falcon 9 rocket, which is set to debut from Cape Canaveral later this year. Dwarfing these kinds of commercial contracts is the whopping $1.6 billion that NASA agreed in December to pay for 12 future supply flights to the space station, beginning next year. Most of the payloads NASA packs onboard the Falcon 9 will still have low value—food, water, spare parts and the like. Not unique, expensive satellites. Those go on proven Deltas and Atlases.
But SpaceX’s fortunes ride on how well the Falcon 9 performs. It’s a lot of pressure on Musk, who recently has seemed more Hughes than Ford, at least in his private life: divorce, relationships with starlets, spats with reporters, all of which have landed him in the tabloids more than he’d probably like. Maybe it’s a relief to turn back to the relatively tame world of rocket science, and figure out how to get RazakSAT safely off the ground.