It all started with the dream of growing a rose on Mars.
That vision, Elon Musk's vision, was transformed into a shake-up of the old space industry and a fleet of new private rockets. Now, those rockets will launch NASA astronauts from Florida to the International Space Station, the first time that a for-profit company will take astronauts into the cosmos.
It is a milestone in the effort to commercialize the space. But for Musk's company, SpaceX, it's also the latest milestone on a wild journey that started with epic failures and the threat of bankruptcy.
If the company's eccentric founder and CEO gets his way, this is just the beginning: He plans to build a city on the red planet and live there.
"What I really want to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible, to make it appear that it is something we can do in our lives and that you can go," Musk said at a conference of space professionals in Mexico in 2016.
Musk "is a revolutionary change,quot; in the space world, says Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, whose Jonathan Space Report has tracked launches and failures for decades.
Former astronaut and former head of the Federation of Commercial Space Flights, Michael Lopez-Alegria, says: "I think history will look at him as a da Vinci figure."
Musk has become better known for Tesla, his bold effort to build an electric vehicle company. But SpaceX is earlier.
At 30, Musk was already enormously wealthy for selling his Internet finance company PayPal and his predecessor Zip2. He organized a series of lunches in Silicon Valley in 2001 with G. Scott Hubbard, who had been NASA's Tsar of Mars and then headed the agency's Ames Research Center.
Musk somehow wanted to grow a rose on the red planet, show it to the world, and inspire schoolchildren, Hubbard recalls.
"His real focus was to have life on Mars," says Hubbard, a Stanford University professor who now chairs the SpaceX crew safety advisory panel.
Hubbard told him that the big problem was building a rocket affordable enough to go to Mars. Less than a year later Space Exploration Technologies, called SpaceX, was born.
There are many space companies, and like all SpaceX is designed for profit. But what is different is that behind that profit motive there is a goal, which is simply "Bring Elon to Mars," says McDowell. "By having that long-term vision, that pushed them to be more ambitious and it really changed things."
Everyone at SpaceX, from the senior vice presidents to the barista offering their internal cappuccinos and FroYo, "will tell you that they are working to make humans multi-planetary," says former SpaceX director Garrett Reisman, a former astronaut. now at the University of Southern California.
Musk founded the company just before NASA raised the notion of commercial space.
Traditionally, private companies built things or provided services for NASA, which was still the boss and owned the equipment. The idea of bigger roles for private companies has been around for more than 50 years, but the market and technology were still not right.
The two fatal accidents on NASA's space shuttle – Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 – were critical, says W. Henry Lambright, professor of public policy at Syracuse University.
When Columbia disintegrated, NASA had to contemplate a post-space shuttle world. That's where private companies came in, says Lambright.
After Columbia, the agency focused on returning astronauts to the moon, but had yet to carry cargo and astronauts to the space station, says Sean O & # 39; Keefe, who was NASA's administrator at the time. A 2005 pilot project helped private companies develop ships to carry cargo to the station.
SpaceX got some of that seed funding. The company's first three launches failed. The company could also have failed just as easily, but NASA stuck with SpaceX and started paying off, Lambright says.
"You can't explain SpaceX without really understanding how NASA actually powered it in the early days," says Lambright. "In a way, SpaceX is a kind of son of NASA."
Since 2010, NASA has spent $ 6 billion to help private companies put people into orbit, with SpaceX and Boeing as the top receivers, says Phil McAlister, commercial director of NASA spaceflight.
NASA plans to spend another $ 2.5 billion to buy 48 astronaut seats for the space station on 12 different flights, it says. At just over $ 50 million per trip, it's much cheaper than what NASA has paid Russia for flights to the station.
Starting from scratch has given SpaceX an advantage over older companies and NASA that are stuck using legacy technology and infrastructure, says O & # 39; Keefe.
And SpaceX tries to build everything on its own, giving the company more control, Reisman says. The company saves money by reusing rockets, and has clients other than NASA.
The California company now has 6,000 employees. Its workers are young, highly caffeinated and have 60 to 90-hour weeks, Hubbard and Reisman say. They also embrace risk more than their NASA counterparts.
Decisions that can make a year at NASA can be made at one or two meetings at SpaceX, says Reisman, who still advises the firm.
In 2010, a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad had a broken nozzle extension on an engine. Normally that would mean taking the rocket off the platform and a solution that would delay launch for more than a month.
But with NASA's permission, SpaceX engineer Florence Li was hoisted into the rocket's mouthpiece with a crane and harness. Then, using what were essentially garden shears, "he cut the thing off, we pitched the next day, and it worked," says Reisman.
Musk is the unconventional, public face of SpaceX: He smokes marijuana on a popular podcast, quarrels with local officials about opening his Tesla plant during the pandemic, and names his newborn son "X Æ A-12,quot;. But experts say aerospace industry veteran Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer, is also key to the company's success.
"The SpaceX shape is actually a combination of Musk's imagination, creativity and drive and Shotwell's responsible sound management and engineering," says McDowell.
But it all goes back to Musk's dream. Former NASA chief O & # 39; Keefe says Musk has his eccentricities, huge doses of self-confidence and persistence, and that last part is key: "You have the ability to overcome a setback and look … where you're trying to arrive. " Let's go."
For Musk, it is Mars.
Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter: @Borenbears
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