Hondas in Space
The ex-CEO of PayPal is spending a fortune to prove you can build rockets faster, cheaper, and better.
Innovation, it seems, isn't always rocket science.
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
pitchers of caipirinhas. He was engrossed in a different kind of vacation reading:
Fundamentals of Rocket
. 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
, 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
, 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
, 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?
Like Southwest Airlines, Nucor, Dell, and other innovators, SpaceX derives its success from a series of small