Letter From Discover

Friday, September 09, 2005
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The launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, July 12, 2001.
NASA

At Discover we’re committed to providing extraordinary diversity in our coverage of the world of science. We try to report at the frontiers of nearly 50 specific “ologies,” from astrobiology to zoology. We’re also dedicated to adding to the literature of science rather than repeating it, and we try faithfully to publish only information that is truly new to your eyes—information you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. That’s the case with this month’s cover article on Elon Musk and his attempt to do what NASA has yet been unable to do—build a fast, reliable rocket that delivers payloads into space at a reasonable price.

Musk first got our attention in February at a conference in Monterey, California, called TED, for technology, entertainment, and design. It’s a gathering where we often see the edge of new frontiers. TEDsters, as the people who regularly attend the conference are known, like to call these insights “moments.” You might call them surprises.

Musk was one of those surprises. In his 20 minutes on stage, he quietly, confidently, even humbly announced that his small, unknown company was about to launch a revolutionary new rocket that would commercialize space for the first time in history. Then he suggested that he would build a grander rocket in maybe five years that could get to the moon and, not too many years after that, build yet another rocket that could put the coordinates for Mars into its navigation computer. It all seemed unreal, like science fiction. Musk is not a rocket scientist. His main claim to fame is that he cofounded PayPal, a way for people to buy stuff from each other on the Internet. How could a non–rocket scientist put together a revolutionary new rocket in so little time and beneath everyone else’s radar screens? Burt Rutan, who put a rocket plane at the edge of space last year, has been on our radar screen for decades, going back to his nimble homebuilt airplanes that rest on their noses. Musk, it’s safe to say, had never designed anything that could provide lift, much less liftoff.

What makes Musk unique is that he is a visionary who sees an obvious business opportunity more clearly than everyone else and simply decides to go for it. He reaches far beyond the entrepreneurial framework of the likes of Jack Welch and Michael Dell, into the prophet land of Steve Jobs and George Lucas—except Musk’s visions are more important, on the frontier of human imagineering. He genuinely wants to provide humans with the opportunity to get off the home planet. Musk the visionary sees that Earth cannot serve as a home for humanity permanently. Musk the businessman sees a need people are willing to pay for that he can provide more efficiently than others. By building a business in space, he can boost us into the future far faster than NASA or the European Space Agency. And that is as close to the frontiers of science as it gets.

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