I could be sitting on a beach in front of the world’s finest hotel drinking mai tais. In fact, I could buy the hotel, I suppose,” muses SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. “But I could only take it for a few days.” Instead Musk (seated here in front of the second-stage engine, dubbed Kestrel) has invested his dot-com millions in Falcon I. “Somebody who is wired to do high-intensity things can’t switch to low intensity without getting a lobotomy,” he says.
Elon Musk is 34 years old, worth hundreds of millions, owns two jets, and even has straight teeth, so it’s quite natural to hate him. Unfortunately, in person he turns out to be a chatty, self-deprecating fellow who’s virtually impossible to dislike. Born in South Africa, he has a not-quite-British accent and an arid wit: “When people ask me why I started a rocket company, I say, ‘I was trying to learn how to turn a large fortune into a small one.’ ”
If he succeeds, poverty won’t be a new experience. At age 17, he left home to enroll at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, subsisting on less than $1 a day—he calls it a forced experiment in avoiding scurvy—before landing a scholarship and earning an undergraduate physics degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Enrolled in a doctorate program at Stanford University, he dropped out after just two days to start a media-services software company called Zip2 in 1995, which he sold in 1999. He then cofounded PayPal, the world’s leading electronic payment system, and sold it to online auctioneer eBay in 2002. As a major shareholder in both ventures, his resulting net worth has been estimated at $324 million. Asked if the figure is correct, he shrugs: “That depends on how you value SpaceX.”
Musk decided to found the company after a 2002 feasibility study convinced him that “there is nothing inherently expensive about rockets. It’s just that those who have built and operated them in the past have done so with horrendously poor efficiency.” A major problem, he found, has been the bureaucratic tendency to cling to obsolete hardware. “The space shuttle still uses reel-to-reel tape recorders with less data capacity than a ThumbDrive,” he says, shaking his head. “They have to search for replacement parts on eBay.” He also found that the staffs behind rockets such as Boeing’s Delta IV tended to number in the thousands, but he knew from his Internet days that smaller working groups could execute projects far more quickly.
Sackheim, who consulted with Musk in the early days of SpaceX, concurred that big aerospace could learn a thing or two from leaner, more nimble Silicon Valley organizational structures. “While Moore’s law has been making chips so much better, at the same time we have been going backward in rockets,” he says. “What we have now is no better than the V-2.”
Confident of an opportunity, Musk immediately began plucking top young talent from leading aerospace firms. “It was very scary, but it was also a dream come true,” recalls Mueller of the early days. “I can’t tell you how many times people said it can’t be done.”
Knee-high to typical American, European, and Russian rockets, the Falcon I aims to do to spacecraft what the 1960s Volkswagen Beetle did to oversize, overpriced cars. Musk’s goal is to shake up and revitalize the rocket industry in America. “There has not been a forcing function to make the big aerospace companies lower costs,” he says. “In any industry, things improve when new entrants come in.”
From the start, SpaceX has hewed to one sacred principle: simplicity. “It’s our mantra because it gets you both reliability and low cost,” says Musk. Falcon I’s engineers began by focusing on an efficient engine. In the last 30 years, only two new American rocket engines have been developed. SpaceX designers “literally began with a clean sheet of paper,” says Mueller, grinning at the memory. “We said, ‘What thrust do we need, what payload do we want,’ and we went from there.”
Chewing on a bran muffin (there are full kitchens and abundant munchies in all four of the El Segundo buildings), Musk waves a hand at the production floor, where technicians built the Falcon I’s space-grade 2219 aluminum alloy fuel tank, its first-stage engine, dubbed Merlin, and the upper-stage engine, called Kestrel. Both engines were birthed via the mantra of simplicity. “Just one engine per stage and just two stages,” says Musk. “We think it’s the simplest configuration you can have and still get something useful into orbit.”
A freshly built Merlin gleams in a corner of the clean room. An example of what rocketeers call a pintle engine, even to a lay observer it is brilliantly straightforward, with one high-pressure coaxial fuel injector to mix rocket-grade kerosene and liquid oxygen instead of the hundreds of smaller injector holes used in other rocket engines. “Getting the Merlin right was the hardest single thing,” says Musk, who says that during testing, the engine had its share of RUD events (short for rapid unscheduled disassembly—who says rocket scientists aren’t funny?). But rigorous runs at the company’s 300-acre test site in McGregor, Texas, have persuaded him that Merlin is a trouper, reliably cranking out 75,000 pounds of thrust. It also has the marvelous capability to be shut down whenever engineers want. That will allow the launch crew to hold Falcon I on the launchpad, firing away, until they are convinced all systems are go, or if not, to stop the engine. Solid-rocket boosters such as those on the space shuttle can’t shut down once they are lit.
Merlin is the key to SpaceX’s long-term success. Once Falcon I establishes a track record, SpaceX plans to cluster five Merlins to propel the first stage of Falcon V, the next launch vehicle, which will be capable of lofting 10,000-pound payloads into orbit for about $15.8 million a shot. That compares remarkably well with the $60 million per flight Boeing charges for its Delta IV. Having just one kind of first-stage engine in all of its rockets “is like Southwest Airlines deciding to use only 737s,” says Musk. “It simplifies everything.”
But that’s hardly all there is to Falcon’s efficiencies over present-day spacecraft. For example, 80 percent of Falcon I’s components are designed to be parachuted back earthward, fished out of the ocean, refurbished, and used again. Flotation won’t be a problem. “With the fuel tank empty, it will be like an empty beer can,” says Musk. Falcon V is configured to be completely reusable—the first fully reusable orbital vehicle. Musk hopes to get at least 100 flights out of the components.
For the rocket as a whole, Mueller, Thompson, and their fellow designers exploited bleeding-edge technologies such as computer-controlled parts machining, lightweight carbon-fiber materials, and GPS-aided guidance systems. Falcon V’s avionics components will chat with each other via Ethernet, the same technology that connects devices in home and small-office networks. And the booster tank’s seams are friction stir welded, an exotic technology that knits materials with high pressure and friction rather than globs of weak, imprecisely added metal.