At the beginning of March 2019 Elon Musk’s SpaceX organization sends a capsule rocketing up to space. The Dragon craft, as it is known, is making its way towards the International Space Station. It arrives there swiftly – and the ramifications for the future of space exploration could be gargantuan.
Even before the establishment of SpaceX, Elon Musk had announced himself as a notable entrepreneur. Having already accumulated considerable wealth, in 1999 Musk helped to establish the online bank X.com. And while this may not necessarily ring any bells for anyone today, X.com’s subsequent merger with software business Confinity would ultimately prove to be very significant.
Confinity had been set up during the winter of 1998 by Peter Thiel, Luke Nosek and Max Levchin. And it was in the following year that Confinity’s most well-known product was launched. It was so significant, in fact, that it’s still widely used today – some two decades later. The product in question is PayPal.
Then, in March 2000 Confinity merged with Musk’s X.com. This combined entity initially operated under the X.com moniker, as this was believed to be the more appealing of the two companies’ titles. Market research, however, subsequently suggested that people thought the name related to pornography – and so the business was later renamed PayPal.
Around the time of the merger, Musk was reportedly confident regarding the potential of the business. Even so, he ended up stepping down as CEO in October 2000, with Peter Thiel taking his place. Under Thiel’s leadership, then, the company grew quickly, and in 2002 it opted to offer its shares to the public.
Not long after this, e-commerce giant eBay secured PayPal at a reported cost of $1.5 billion. And even though Musk was no longer the latter company’s CEO, he nonetheless remained its most significant shareholder. So, as a result of the sale, Musk apparently picked up in excess of $160 million.
Following the sale of PayPal, it would have been quite easy for Musk to simply sit back and enjoy his vast wealth. But seemingly not one for putting his feet up, he began to consider new areas of business within which to work. And one of these happened to be space exploration.
During the early 2000s Musk was disheartened to discover that NASA was seemingly making no efforts to send humans to Mars. Moreover, he assumed that this was actually a reflection of the mindset of American people as a whole. Space exploration, it appeared, was no longer a notion of much concern.
In response, Musk devised a plan that came to be known as Mars Oasis. And the idea was that a spacecraft carrying seeds would be sent to the Red Planet. In other words, the mission would see life travel further from Earth than ever before.
The actual experiment detailed in the Mars Oasis plan would have been of significant scientific value. But as Musk saw it, the most important aspect would be the public excitement that it would generate. By sending life to Mars, you see, he thought that people might again focus on space – just as they had done in the 1960s.
So with a goal of capturing the public’s imagination in mind, Musk got to work on the Mars Oasis mission. And in many ways, things initially seemed to be going well. A number of scientific problems were apparently overcome, and a landing craft was envisioned that would be financially viable.
Difficulties emerged, however, when attention shifted to the rocket that would be needed to launch the mission into space. Indeed, it seems that the most inexpensive American rockets still cost around $65 million – which apparently was too much even for Musk. And as a result, the wannabe trailblazer set his sights on Russia.
Thankfully, things looked a little more positive when talks began with the Russians. Musk even managed to track down rockets that would cost in the region of $10 million – considerably less than the American ones. Yet even so, Musk began to suspect that the challenges holding back space travel had less to do with public disinterest and more to do with money.
In a 2013 conversation with Salman Khan of the Khan Academy, Musk explained his shift in thinking. “I thought that there wasn’t enough will [for space exploration], but there actually was plenty of will if people thought there was a way,” he said, according to Vice. “So, then I decided, ‘Okay, well, I need to work on the way.’”
Musk had now decided that the most significant barrier to space exploration was actually the money that it involved. By this line of thinking, then, if there was a way to bring costs down, then space travel could be revolutionized. And so, by the beginning of 2002 Musk was in the midst of realizing a new plan.
First, Musk approached a scientist by the name of Tom Mueller with his idea for a space business. Mueller decided to accept a role under Musk, and so SpaceX was established. The firm was based in the Californian city of El Segundo and initially employed relatively few people.
SpaceX expanded swiftly after its establishment, however, growing to have almost 7,000 employees by late 2017. And as of spring 2018 the company had reportedly already scheduled in excess of 100 launches. To put that in a monetary context, taken together these missions apparently amounted to contracts worth well over $10 billion.
Moreover, in SpaceX’s relatively brief history, it has already passed a number of significant benchmarks. In September 2008, for instance, it became the only private company in history to have sent a rocket powered by liquid fuel into orbit. And by 2017 the company was capable of relaunching spacecraft that had previously been used for other missions.
More recently, however, Musk’s company launched a mission with the potential to change the very nature of space exploration itself. During the morning of March 2, 2019, a rocket was launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. And aimed in the direction of the International Space Station, it carried a reusable space capsule known as Dragon 2.
Although the spacecraft didn’t contain any humans, it was nonetheless a test for manned operations in the near future. On this occasion, the vessel was used to carry cargo to the space station. And it also brought with it a test dummy known as Ripley in honor of the Alien franchise.
The mission was conducted in association with NASA and sought to examine the processes via which the spacecraft would dock at the International Space Station. Essentially, the flight was a step towards allowing the U.S. to once again send people into space. And this hasn’t occurred since NASA wound down its shuttle operations in 2011.
In a tweet following the lift-off, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine attempted to express its significance. “Today’s successful launch marks a new chapter in American excellence,” he wrote. “[The launch gets] us closer to once again flying American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”
And Bridenstine wasn’t the only one to note the importance of the latest mission. “It’s been 17 years to get to this point,” Musk said after the launch, as reported by The Guardian. “[It has taken] an incredible amount of hard work and sacrifice from a lot of people to have gotten to this point.”
But in spite of the jubilation of the moment, Musk also spoke about the mental toll that the mission had taken on him. “To be frank, I’m a little emotionally exhausted,” he said. “That was super stressful, but it worked, so far… We have passed some of the riskiest items.”
After all, just a day after the launch, on March 3, 2019, the Dragon capsule arrived at the International Space Station. And while nobody was aboard the craft on this occasion, the success of the flight suggests that future missions will be manned. What’s more, they may take place sooner rather than later.
Given the success of this mission, SpaceX in fact has plans to send two men to the space station in the summer of 2019. And these lucky individuals are astronauts Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley, both of whom were present for the recent launch of the Dragon craft.
“I can’t begin to explain how exciting it is for a test pilot to be on a first flight of a mission,” Hurley said after the launch, according to The Guardian. And Behnken, too, was struck by its magnitude. “[The Dragon launch was] just one more milestone that gets us ready for our flight,” he explained.
Meanwhile, the Dragon spacecraft remained at the International Space Station for several days, eventually departing on March 8. On this date, the capsule was released and began to drift back in the direction of Earth. And after reentering the planet’s atmosphere, it parachuted its way down into the Atlantic Ocean and was soon retrieved.
Following the Dragon’s recovery, it was taken to dry land and examined. And overall, the mission was deemed a success, with the plans to send Hurley and Behnken into space looking feasible. Their mission has been scheduled for July 25, 2019, in fact, and is set to last for two weeks.
It’s perhaps fair to say that on the surface, these missions do not appear to be especially groundbreaking. Russian Yuri Gagarin made humankind’s first trip into orbit back in 1961, after all. However, the SpaceX launches are expected to be the beginning of something much bigger.
In 2017 Musk expressed his intention to construct spacecraft capable of traveling to Mars. Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, he detailed the notion of no less than two unmanned vessels reaching the Red Planet by the end of 2022. And the trailblazer hopes to see humans traveling there in 2024.
“I feel fairly confident that we can complete the ship and be ready for a launch in about five years,” Musk told the congress, according to Business Insider. “That’s our goal… to try to make the 2022 Mars rendezvous. The Earth-Mars synchronization happens roughly every two years. So, every two years, there’s an opportunity to fly to Mars.”
In essence, these first few Mars missions are intended to lay the groundwork for future manned flights. SpaceX hopes, first of all, to locate a water source and then create the infrastructure necessary to survive there. After that, construction could begin on what Musk terms as a “city” on the planet.
Speaking to the audience at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress, Musk explained that the plan is to “build up the base [on Mars], starting with one ship, then multiple ships, then start building up the city, then making the city bigger – and even bigger.” Plus, he added, “Over time, [we’ll start] terraforming Mars and making it really a nice place to be.”
Reaching planets beyond Earth has long been a goal of Musk’s. Indeed, the entrepreneur views it as ultimately being vital to the survival of the human race. Even if our species were to overcome the immediate problems that it faces today, Earth will nonetheless one day become uninhabitable. And so, as Musk sees it, humankind must look to other planets – and now is the time to act.
“It’s the first time in 4.5 billion years that we are at a level of technology where we have the ability to reach Mars,” Musk suggested at the SXSW festival in 2013, according to Vice. “I will go if I can be assured that SpaceX would go on without me. I’ve said I want to die on Mars – just not on impact.”
So, Musk is apparently set on the notion of interplanetary travel and its necessity for humankind. And if we are to take him at his word, he seems dedicated to the idea of personally reaching Mars, too. In fact, he even appears to welcome the possibility of seeing out the end of his days there.
“I think fundamentally the future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we’re a space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species than if we’re not,” Musk stated at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress. “You want to be inspired by things. You want to wake up in the morning and think, ‘The future’s going to be great.’”
“That’s what being a space-faring civilization is all about,” Musk continued. “It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”
There’s still a long way to go before Musk’s dreams become reality, of course. But the possibilities of interplanetary travel and the colonization of Mars are no longer just the stuff of science fiction. And perhaps people will one day look back on the 2019 launch of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft as yet another giant leap for mankind.