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As a frustrated space colonist, I don’t usually find much in the news to cheer about. Watching the American manned space program wither over the past few decades has been depressing. However, discovering Elon Musk and his company SpaceX made me very happy.

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Elon Musk is a South African-born American entrepreneur who made a fortune on the internet; he’s a co-founder of PayPal. After selling PayPal to eBay, Elon single-handedly started his own space program, with the ultimate aim of “making life interplanetary.” Elon doesn’t just want to launch satellites. He wants to go to Mars.

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The goal of SpaceX is to provide affordable, reliable transport to Earth orbit and beyond. Since its inception in 2002, SpaceX has been quietly designing and building a fleet of Falcon launch vehicles and the Dragon spacecraft.

Falcon 1

  • uses one Merlin engine
  • can lift 1010 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for $10.9 million
  • has flown five times; the first three test flights crashed, but the last two were successful. The fifth flight placed a communications satellite in orbit.

Falcon 9

  • uses nine Merlin engines
  • can lift 10,450 kg to LEO for $54 million – $59.5 million
  • the first two test flights were successful. The second flight placed a Dragon spacecraft into LEO. The Dragon successfully re-entered the atmosphere and was recovered after splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. This is a first for a commercial company.

Falcon Heavy

  • uses twenty-seven Merlin engines
  • has not launched yet
  • can lift 53,000 kg to LEO for $80 million – $125 million. This is twice the lifting capacity of the Space Shuttle.

Dragon

  • is a free-flying, reusable spacecraft
  • can be launched by Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy
  • will be used to transport cargo and crew to and from the International Space Station
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SpaceX’s company philosophy is: “simplicity, low-cost, and reliability can go hand in hand.” They adhere to this philosophy by

  • avoiding the use of subcontractors; most components of their products are designed and built in-house, including rocket motors
  • maintaining a flat company management structure, with as few layers of management as possible
  • not billing their customers on a “cost-plus” basis; their prices are fixed, and are posted on the SpaceX website
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Elon himself is a refreshing change from the standard smooth, slick, good-old-boy space industry executive. He’s an endearingly geeky, yet utterly convincing speaker who just tells it like it is in a simple, straightforward fashion. I don’t usually watch videos, but I’ve watched all of Elon’s speeches and company tours. Some of my favourite Elon quotes are

  • “We suck at reusability.”
  • “If somebody had asked me ‘Do you think Solyndra is a good investment?’ I would have said no, you’re going to get your ass kicked.”
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Elon has put $100 million of his own money into SpaceX , but it’s not just a rich man’s toy. The company is a profitable operation employing 1500 people, and it boasts several billion dollars worth of signed launch contracts. Elon Musk is making a profit while pursuing a vision of human space colonization.

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I’m not the only one who thinks Elon is a hero: in 2011, he was awarded the Heinlein Prize for Accomplishments in Commercial Space Activities.

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