Third Time’s the Charm?
Elon Musk tries again to reach orbit, with hopes for low-cost spaceflight riding on the outcome.
- By Geoffrey Little
- AirSpaceMag.com, July 17, 2008
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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.