“Engineering is the closest thing to magic that exists in the world,” the inventor Elon Musk likes to tell students. This week he sets out to prove it, as he attempts to do what no private citizen has done before: send a vessel to the International Space Station.
Musk, who cofounded PayPal before plowing $100 million into space exploration in 2002, plans to blast a gumdrop-shape capsule from the pads at Cape Canaveral to Earth’s only extraterrestrial embassy, a journey shorter than the bus route from Detroit to Chicago, but straight up and considerably more scenic. Besides surviving the hellfire of Earth’s atmosphere, Musk’s craft, which he’ll oversee from mission control in Hawthorne, Calif., must deliver a half ton of cargo (yes, Tang included), and splash down safely somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
Only the governments of China, Russia, and the United States have accomplished the feat. “I mean, touch wood,” Musk says by phone. During a decade of trial and error, he’s had at least three failed launches, including a rocket that dumped the ashes of James Doohan—Scotty from Star Trek—into the sea. Lesson learned: keep the celebratory champagne in storage. “Otherwise, if it doesn’t go well it just kills you.”
Either way Musk has earned the drink. His company, SpaceX, is one of a handful that President Obama hopes will service the space station now that the shuttle is gone. Success would quiet critics and cement a $1.6 billion contract with NASA, making SpaceX the go-to taxi for supplies and, eventually, astronauts. It would also make Musk a 21st-century robber baron, extracting cash from the cosmos. With $4 billion in contracts and more than 40 other launches already booked, SpaceX has outpaced competition from companies backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, not to mention aerospace stalwarts like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
But Musk sees his efforts in more transcendent terms. He hopes to colonize Mars, thus ensuring the survival of humanity, whatever the fate of Earth. “What we’re talking about here is insurance on a grand scale,” he says, and he expects to have it for us, for all of humankind, within 20 years, give or take. “I can see a way,” he says, as though spotting a free parking space, “and we’re making progress. So if I don’t die ...”
This fall he’s hoping for another term for Obama, the best friend of private space, Musk says. “Obama seems to care about inspiring events in the country,” Musk says. Romney, on the other hand: “He’s got that whole business-school thing going on, which I’m not a huge fan of. It’s hard to make a business case for inspiration.” For now Musk has more immediate worries, like the performance of his rocket with the whole world watching. Isn’t he worried he’ll suffer a Kim Jong-un-like fizzle? Nah, Musk says. Believe him. “Elon has huge steel balls,” his ex-wife notes on her blog. “He truly does.”