Ebay CEO Elon Musk says “A Ferrari is a very expensive car. It is not reliable. But I would bet you 1,000-to-1 that if you bought a Honda Civic that that sucker will not break down in the first year of operation. You can have a cheap car that’s reliable, and the same applies to rockets.”
In January 2002, Elon Musk was basking in the sun on a Rio de Janeiro beach. It was just where you’d expect to find a 30-year-old who was about to see PayPal — the electronic payments company where he was a board member and the largest shareholder — go public. But Musk wasn’t flipping idly through People or downing pitchers of caipirinhas. He was engrossed in a different kind of vacation reading: Fundamentals of Rocket Propulsion . Musk, a former physics student, wasn’t a rocket scientist. But he was about to become one.
Five months later, Musk used some of his estimated $328 million fortune to fund Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), with the ambitious — some might say absurd — goal of building a rocket that would send small payloads into low-Earth orbit at one-tenth the going rate in the United States. Two and a half years and more than $50 million later, the Falcon I , a 60,000-lb. rocket that will deliver a 1,500-lb. payload, is on the verge of its first launch. It if goes up, it will be the first completely privately funded rocket in history to make it into orbit. And even if the first flight fails, SpaceX will have come further, faster, than any other company in the space business. “I think SpaceX has a good shot to revolutionize the industry,” says Nathaniel Mass, a senior fellow at Katzenbach Partners LLC, a consulting firm that has studied SpaceX.
Space is all the rage these days, thanks to the success of Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne , which in October 2004 claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first private manned spacecraft to reach suborbital space two times. Well-heeled Internet folks in particular seem drawn to the concept. There’s Jeff Bezos, whose mysterious Blue Origin is said to be working on manned spaceflight; John Carmack, cocreator of the video game DOOM , whose Armadillo Aerospace competed for the X Prize; and Paul Allen, who backed Rutan. But the industry is littered with the carcasses of those sure they could break the stranglehold of NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and others.
To tackle this sphere without years of training or connections is audacious in itself. To proclaim your intent to transform the industry is even more so. But Musk and his team have created an entrepreneurial culture that dares to dream big — a throwback to the anything-is-possible philosophy of the New Economy — while at the same time taking a deeply practical approach to creating a hunk of metal that may hurtle 200 to 500 miles in the air (but may also explode before it ever leaves the ground). Though Musk’s goals are ambitious, his approach is radically simple: How can we build a rocket faster, cheaper, and better than ever before? And how can a dream team of great minds avoid the human roadblocks that can doom any working group?