When two Nasa astronauts splashed down back on Earth on August 2 after a historic 63-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Elon Musk triumphantly declared: “We’re going to go to the moon, we’re going to have a base on the moon, we’re going to send people to Mars and make life multi-planetary and I think this day heralds a new age of space exploration. That’s what it’s all about.”
Musk’s SpaceX is just the fourth entity in the world – and the first commercial one – to successfully send humans to orbit and bring them back. This milestone has taken Musk a step closer to achieving his Mars ambitions.
This was also the first time in 45 years that Nasa astronauts — Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — returned from space to water since Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand, and Donald Slayton landed in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii on July 24, 1975. Nasa’s SpaceX Demo-2 test flight launched on May 30 from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. After reaching orbit, Behnken and Hurley named their spacecraft “Endeavour” as a tribute to the first space shuttle each astronaut had flown aboard.
Ashley Vance, Musk’s biographer, stresses that “Musk comes off much more like Thomas Edison…He’s an inventor, celebrity businessman, and industrialist able to take big ideas and turn them into big products.” Musk dreams of colonising Mars and founded SpaceX in 2002 ‘to get to Mars.’ He intends to devise a rocket system that could be used again and again with little refurbishment.
“Over the next decade, SpaceX designed, built and tested its Falcon series of rockets. It signed contracts with Nasa to provide cargo services to the ISS and with other companies and the US military to provide general launch services. Most importantly, SpaceX has demonstrated that its rockets can be reused, with the core stages flying their way back to Earth to land themselves,” writes Wendy Whitman Cobb, Professor of Strategy and Security Studies, US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, in The Conversation.
But SpaceX has had its share of setbacks. In March 2006, SpaceX launched the maiden flight of Falcon 1, carrying a satellite built by the US Air Force Academy cadets. The Falcon 1 failed 29 seconds after lift-off. It was re-launched in March 2007. This time it performed much better but did not reach the orbit.
These failures did not deter Musk. In 2008, SpaceX launched the first privately funded liquid-fuelled rocket. Falcon 9 flew for the first time the next year, and in 2012, the Dragon capsule became the first privately funded spacecraft to dock with the ISS. In 2018, SpaceX made 21 successful launches. Now SpaceX is focused on developing Starship, which will be designed to travel through the solar system and can carry up to 100 passengers.
With his Tesla Motors, Musk has tried to completely rethink and revamp cars by making all-electric cars that push the limits of technology. Its key venture is Tesla Roadster, an environmentally friendly sports car. The car charges overnight, uses no gasoline, and claims to go from zero to 96 kph in less than 4 seconds. Evaluating Musk’s ventures, Ashley has said that “Musk is building a futuristic end-to-end transportation system that would allow the United States to leapfrog the rest of the world.”
Musk has also developed the concept of Hyperloop for ultra-fast inter-city travel. Using travel pods inside metallic tubes, Musk calls it as a “fifth mode” of transport after addition to cars, planes, boats, and trains. The Hyperloop is a high-speed transport system that could reach speeds of around 1,210 kph. Musk wants to transport people — from Los Angeles to San Francisco– a distance of around 610 km — in 30 minutes.
Thinking big, for Hyperloop Musk’s has formed partnerships to deliver systems and routes across the world, as well as annual competitions involving international student teams to design and build the best high-speed pod. His mass-transport venture, The Boring Company, provides support for these competitions and is involved in creating sub-surface transportation tunnels and Hyperloop tubes.
Apart from SpaceX, Tesla and The Boring Company, Musk has also co-founded Neuralink and is worth over $58 billion, according to Forbes. Musk believes his purpose is far greater than most and has stressed that “we must propagate a human civilization on Earth as far into the future as possible and become a multi-planet species, including colonising Mars.” He wrote to SpaceX employees, reiterating his Mars mission that “creating the technology needed to establish life on Mars is and always has been the fundamental goal of SpaceX. If being a public company diminishes that likelihood, then we should not do so until Mars is secure.” (Vance)
Musk plans to send a SpaceX rocket to Mars, with cargo, by 2022. A second mission, which would take crew to Mars is planned for 2024. Musk claims he’ll send a million people to Mars by 2050. “I’ll probably be long dead before Mars becomes self-sustaining,” Musk told Ars Technica. “But I’d like to at least be around to see a bunch of ships land on Mars.” The Starship is the rocket that SpaceX is building to go to Mars. “I have lots of ideas, more ideas than I can act upon,” he told Maureen Dowd of The New York Times.
Musk is also planning to introduce commercial rocket flights to make any city on Earth less than an hour’s travel from any other. It is a crazy idea – but given his zeal and willingness to fail a thousand times – it might just work. But what about the environmental impact, ask his critics. In a way addressing these environmental concerns, Musk’s SolarCity focuses on conserving resources. By offering cost-effective installations, Musk hopes to help reduce their carbon footprints.
- Born in South Africa in 1971, the computer bug bit Musk early. When 12, he wrote code for a video game and sold it. Called Blastar, the science-fiction-inspired space game required 167 lines of instructions to run. It certainly surpassed what most 12-year-olds were kicking at the time, points out Ashley Vance
- When 17, he moved to Canada and eventually to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned degrees in physics and business. He joined Stanford in 1995 but dropped out before classes began
- The emerging Internet was too tantalising for Musk. He devoted the next four years to Zip2 – a company that helped post maps and directory listings on the Internet. Compaq bought Zip2 for $307 million – the biggest sum paid for an Internet company till then. Musk walked away from Zip2 at 28
- Next, he founded X.com, which offered online financial services. Eventually, X.com merged with Confinity, famous for PayPal. Musk came out trumps again when eBay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion in 2002. And then Musk turned to his three and perhaps most crazy ventures: SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and SolarCity
– With inputs from agencies
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