A giant leap for Elon Musk’s multi-planetary ambitions

“Let’s light this candle!” With those words, Doug Hurley and his fellow astronaut Bob Behnken blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral aboard a Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket.

In one sense, last Saturday’s was a routine launch, one of scores that have transported more than 230 astronauts to the International Space Station that has been orbiting 250 miles above our heads for almost 20 years.

But in another, it was an astonishing accomplishment, marking the dawn of a new space era. Only three entities, all of them countries, have previously launched humans into space: Russia, the US and China. This was the first time that a commercial enterprise had done so — and for a fraction of the cost.

Mr Hurley’s words on the launch pad also resonated with historical significance, echoing those used by Alan Shepard in 1961 when he became the first American to go into space, triggering a race with the Soviet Union to reach the Moon. “I think humanity should be excited about this,” said Elon Musk, the tech billionaire and founder of SpaceX at the post-launch press conference, his voice cracking with emotion. “It is hopefully the first step on the journey towards civilisation on Mars.”

Arguably, the mercurial South African-born Mr Musk is known as much for his outrageous publicity stunts, unforgiving management style and personal eccentricities — last month, he and Grimes, his musician partner, named their baby X Æ A-Xii — as he is for his prowess at building Tesla cars, battery factories and rockets. But there is no doubting his engineering achievements.

Martin Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal, compares Mr Musk to a “21st century Isambard Kingdom Brunel”, the legendary engineer whose ingenious designs for railways and steamships revolutionised transport in the 19th century. “In spite of some of the stupid things he has done, you have got to admire the guy,” says Mr Rees.

Founded in 2002, SpaceX has transformed its industry with a dose of radical innovation and fast-moving experimentation. Its corporate mission — surely the most ambitious of any company in history — trumpets the goal of turning humanity into a multi-planetary species.

That wild-eyed vision, though, has always been tempered by steely resilience and patience. In spite of early misgivings on both sides, SpaceX has also forged an effective partnership with Nasa, which sponsored its latest mission. By combining private sector expertise and discipline with public sector experience and infrastructure, the two organisations have created something that neither could achieve alone.

Two years ago at a conference, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, showed a spectacular video of multiple explosions, noting that it had taken the company 13 years and many millions of dollars to perfect the art of deploying reusable rockets.

Yet that technology has enabled SpaceX to emerge as one of the most reliable, cost-competitive and profitable launchers of commercial satellites in the space business. “We do cool stuff but we also have a business and that business is great,” Ms Shotwell said.

It will still be many years before SpaceX can aspire to blast off for Mars. And the Chinese, keen to assert their technological supremacy, are rapidly emerging as formidable competitors in the 21st century space race.

But Mr Rees applauds Mr Musk’s ambitions to shoot for Mars, even if he questions the billionaire’s vision of permanently inhabited bases serving as a back-up for Earth. He argues that the new generation of private space companies may now be better suited to taking on highly risky challenges than Nasa.

Following the catastrophic failure of two of its 135 Space Shuttle launches, Nasa has — understandably — developed a far more risk-averse culture. “A less than 2 per cent failure rate is acceptable for test pilots or hang gliders in Yosemite, but not for American taxpayers,” Mr Rees says.

Whatever else, SpaceX’s rocket launch has served as a distraction in recent days from more troubling Earthbound news: the US has been roiled by protests following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

Yet the company’s mission might serve as an inspiration, too. In an email to staff, Ms Shotwell revealed that a button she had worn during the launch carried a quote from Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and political activist born a slave in 19th-century America. “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” 

SpaceX is proof that “absurdly impossible” dreams, as it likes to call them, can sometimes come true.

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