Third Time’s the Charm?

Elon Musk tries again to reach orbit, with hopes for low-cost spaceflight riding on the outcome.

Falcon 1 on the launch pad at Kwajalein. (SpaceX)

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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.

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