Most of the credit for Friday's near-perfect launch of the new Falcon 9 rocket rightly goes to Elon Musk, whose unusual blend of vision, competence, and almost compulsive candor (what other aerospace executive has the nerve to a) publish fixed launch prices, and b) openly criticize a U.S. Senator?) have made him one of the most impressive figures on the American scene today.
With such a charismatic front man, other players in the SpaceX band sometimes don't get the attention they deserve. Take Ken Bowersox, the company's vice president for safety and mission assurance, who had a pretty good weekend himself. The day after Falcon 9's triumph, he was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.
In his 19 years at NASA, Bowersox did nearly everything an astronaut could do. He flew five shuttle missions, two as commander, including the STS-82 Hubble repair mission. He lived for five months on the International Space Station, where he went out on two spacewalks—something most shuttle commanders never get to experience—and returned to Earth on the Russian Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft.
Toward the end of his NASA career, Bowersox was the agency's director of flight crew operations, in charge of astronaut training and safety. Musk surely had that in mind when he chose his VP for safety, who seems to like his new job. He told reporters last week, "A lot of folks at NASA would be energized and happy if they were allowed to work the way people work here."
Several former astronauts have gotten involved in "new space" ventures, including Rick Searfoss (XCOR), John Herrington (Rocketplane), Jim Voss (t/space and Sierra Nevada), and Leroy Chiao (Almaz/Excalibur). At the moment, Bowersox appears to have the pole position to become the first of his ex-NASA colleagues to make it into orbit on a private rocket. It remains to be seen whether NASA will allow SpaceX to send one of its employees to the space station in 2013. But if it's up to the company, said Musk last week, "I would imagine that there's a good chance that Ken is on one of those flights."