TIME Companies

Elon Musk’s SpaceX Is About to Tap a Huge New Market

US-SPACE-SPACEX-DRAGON V2 SPACECRAFT-ELON MUSK
Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images SpaceX CEO Elon Musk introduces SpaceX's Dragon V2 spacecraft, the companys next generation version of the Dragon ship designed to carry astronauts into space, at a press conference in Hawthorne, California on May 29, 2014.

It'll take on Boeing and Lockheed

The U.S. Air Force certified SpaceX to launch satellites for the Pentagon, it was announced Tuesday.

This is significant news for Elon Musk’s 13-year-old aerospace company, which has long been involved court case over certification from the Pentagon. As the Washington Post reports, obtaining Pentagon certification means SpaceX can compete with United Launch Alliance, a joint space venture formed in 2006 by Lockheed Martin and Boeing Defense, Space & Security.

ULA provides launch services to government entities like NASA and the Department of Defense—customers SpaceX also wants to service.

The certification process began when SpaceX sued the U.S. Air Force in April of last year, arguing its bidding process for awarding contracts to launch Pentagon satellites had turned ULA into an unfair monopoly. (In 2012, the Air Force awarded 36 launches to ULA, which was the only contractor certified to launch under the EELV, or Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.) Musk framed the lawsuit as a broader effort to get future launches reopened to widespread competition.

The suit was a rare and risky example of a company suing the organization that would be its biggest customer if it won the suit. In January of this year, SpaceX dropped the lawsuit and the certification process began.

Now Musk has earned what he sought—the right to compete. It’s a big win for Musk and SpaceX, which last year won a contract to fly astronauts to NASA’s International Space Station. In a statement about earning Pentagon certification, Musk said it is an “important step.”

He’s not the only one that thinks so. The news is getting big reactions from major names in the defense industry. Republican Senator John McCain, for instance, said in a statement: “The certification of SpaceX as a provider for defense space launch contracts is a win for competition . . . I am hopeful that this and other new competition will help to bring down launch costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines that subsidizes Vladimir Putin and his cronies.”

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TIME innovations

Watch What It’s Like to Get Blasted to 100MPH in 1.2 Seconds

We'd almost definitely vomit

If you ever wondered what it’s like to get blasted off a launch pad going at 100 miles per hour, this SpaceX video does the trick.

The video, posted Friday, shows point-of-view footage of SpaceX’s May 6 pad abort test of its Crew Dragon vehicle. Essentially, the private space company, headed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, was testing a system that could safely eject astronauts aboard a just-launched rocket should anything go wrong.

The Dragon vehicle reached 100mph in 1.2 seconds, before topping out at a peak velocity of 345mph.

“The successful Pad Abort Test was the first flight test of SpaceX’s revolutionary launch abort system, and the data captured here will be critical in preparing Crew Dragon for its first human missions in 2017,” SpaceX wrote following the successful test.

In March, SpaceX launched the world’s first completely electric satellites into space.

TIME space

SpaceX Invites You to Mars With These Throwback Travel Posters

The space transportation company makes light of its ambitions to take humans to Mars

MONEY Tech

3 Key Lessons From the New Elon Musk Biography

Bloomberg via Getty Images

A look at the new biography ahead of its release next week.

The biggest takeaway from technology journalist Ashlee Vance’s new biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, is clear: The South African-born self-made billionaire’s ambition will stop at nothing. But what really makes this tale of drive so interesting is Musk’s track record to date. He’s the man behind PayPal, Tesla Motors TESLA MOTORS INC. TSLA -0.45% , SpaceX, and SolarCity SOLARCITY CORP COM USD0.0001 SCTY -1.03% . Vance’s take on Musk gives readers an unbiased glimpse into the entrepreneur’s undeniable success in some of the world’s toughest industries for start-ups.

Ahead of the book’s release on May 19, here are some of the most intriguing excerpts.

The PayPal Mafia

While Musk made his first fortune from an early start-up called Zip2, it was at PayPal that the entrepreneur first showed his ability to challenge a complex industry already set in its ways.

Musk’s central role as co-founder of PayPal shouldn’t be overlooked. In retrospect, the PayPal history is evidence of Musk’s unquestionable genius at rallying talented individuals around a big goal and making things happen.

PayPal also came to represent one of the greatest assemblages of business and engineering talent in Silicon Valley history. Both Musk and [Peter] Thiel had a keen eye for young, brilliant engineers. The founders of start-ups as varied as YouTube, Palantir Technologies, and Yelp all worked at PayPal. Another set of people — including Reid Hoffman, Thiel, and [Roelof] Botha — emerged as some of the technology industry’s top investors. PayPal staff pioneered techniques in fighting online fraud that have formed the basis of software used by the CIA and FBI to track terrorists and of software used by the world’s largest banks to combat crime. This collection of super-bright employees has become known as the PayPal Mafia — more or less the current ruling class of Silicon Valley — and Musk is its most famous and successful member.

Musk’s uncanny ability to build successful organizations hit new levels after PayPal.

“During a time in which clean-tech businesses have gone bankrupt with alarming regularity, Musk has built two of the most successful clean-tech companies in the world,” Vance writes. “The Musk Co. empire of factories, tens of thousands of workers, and industrial might has incumbents on the run and has turned Musk into one of the richest men in the world, with a net worth around $10 billion.”

Musk’s track record suggests his lofty goals are achievable

Vance goes beyond simply laying out Musk’s track record. His portrait of Musk shows just how crucial the entrepreneur was to the major achievements behind every start-up he was involved with. Going even further, Vance’s report of Musk led him to believe PayPal’s achievements might have been limited by a cautious board of directors who had trouble wrapping their minds around Musk’s unbridled ambition.

“History has demonstrated that while Musk’s goals can sound absurd in the moment, he certainly believes in them and, when given enough time, tends to achieve them,” Vance argues.

Some of Musk’s current visions that are often criticized as overly optimistic include:

  • At Tesla, where Musk is CEO, he wants to sell 500,000 vehicles per year by 2020, up from management’s target to sell just 55,000 vehicles this year.
  • At SpaceX, the other company where Musk is currently CEO, he wants to put a man on Mars in 10 years.
  • Combining Tesla’s new battery storage business and the solar panel operations at SolarCity, where Musk serves as chairman, Musk wants to catalyze a global transition to sustainable energy.

Sparking a new level of innovation in Silicon Valley

After studying Musk, Vance believes that the entrepreneur is playing a key role in pushing Silicon Valley toward greater innovation and more meaningful work.

Vance describes a lull in Silicon Valley between 2002 and 2007:

Between Google and Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007, there’s a wasteland of ho-hum companies. And the hot new things that were just starting out — Facebook and Twitter — certainly did not look like their predecessors — Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Sun Microsystems — that made physical products and employed tens of thousands of people in the process. In the years that followed, the goal went from taking huge risks to create new industries and grand new ideas, to chasing easier money by entertaining consumers and pumping out simple apps and advertisements.

But Musk’s bold vision and willingness to take risks, paired with surprisingly robust execution, in the automotive, space, and energy industries, Vance explains, set a new precedent.

‘To me, Elon is the shining example of how Silicon Valley might be able to reinvent itself and be more relevant than chasing these quick IPOs and focusing on getting incremental products out,’ said Edward Jung, a famed software engineer and inventor. ‘Those things are important, but they are not enough. We need to look at different models of how to do things that are longer term in nature and where the technology is more integrated.’ The integration mentioned by Jung — the harmonious melding of software, electronics, advanced materials, and computer horsepower — appears to be Musk’s gift. Squint ever so slightly, and it looks like Musk could be using his skills to pave the way toward an age of astonishing machines and science fiction dreams made manifest.

Of the many profiles of business leaders, Vance’s take on Musk is among the best. The author’s objective and unbiased viewpoint captures Musk’s good and bad, his achievements and failures. Based on more than 30 hours of conversations with Musk, and interviews with close to 300 people, this investigative biography captures many facets of the inventor and entrepreneur. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future should be required reading for anyone in business.

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TIME A Year In Space

The Sweetest Little Space Flight You Ever Saw But Probably Missed

The SpaceX Dragon took a big step toward proving its fitness to carry crews

NASA flew a teeny-tiny, 90-second, unmanned mission this morning—and you should care about it a lot. Here’s why.

The flying object that lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 9 a.m. EDT and splashed down about a mile away in the Atlantic at 9:01:30 after climbing just 5,000 ft. (1,500 m) was a test version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Dragon has been making unmanned cargo trips to the International Space Station since 2015 and will start carrying crews in 2017. But carrying crews is an order of magnitude more dangerous than carrying equipment and supplies, and that means a great many additional safety drills. One of the most important of those is what’s known as the pad abort test.

MORE: See the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year in Space

Liftoff is easily among the most dangerous parts of any space mission, when the controlled bomb that is the rocket roars to life with a pod full of astronauts sitting atop it. Ever since the days of the Mercury program—when there was just a single crewman aboard—NASA knew it needed a way to get that pod out of harm’s way if the booster seemed set to blow. And so spacecraft were equipped with escape towers, little scaffolds at the very tip of the rocket stack outfitted with mini-rockets that would ignite at the first sign of trouble and pull the capsule up and away.

That was the system that was tested today, with no booster involved and nothing but the 20-ft. (6 m) capsule and trunk on the launch pad. While that didn’t make for terribly dramatic TV, it was, in its own way, a very dramatic mission—if only because of the sleek engineering at work. SpaceX’s escape system does away with the tower part of the escape tower, embedding its mini-rockets into the base of the capsule itself. When they ignite, they thus push the capsule from below as opposed to pulling it from above, which provides greater stability.

It takes eight engines to lift the 8-ton vehicle, each producing 15,000 lbs. (6,800 kg) of thrust. The collective 120,000 lbs. (54,000 kg) is about twice the oomph of the Redstone rocket that carried America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, on his popgun suborbital flight in 1961.

The Dragon that flew today was stuffed with sensors to measure thrust, temperature, structural stresses and more, as well as a microphone to record internal acoustics and a camera to beam back on-board visuals. It also carried a human dummy, nicknamed Buster, to determine the g-loads on a passenger.

The eyeblink mission ended with the Dragon descending under three red and white parachutes into the ocean, just as a real Dragon mission will—and just as the old Apollo spacecraft did. Indeed, NASA TV made something of a point of comparing this splashdown to the triumphant returns long-ago crews made from the moon. That analogy may have been overwrought, but only a little. Ever since the last shuttle flew, the U.S. has had no spacecraft capable of getting astronauts to space. Today’s tiny flight was a big step back.

TIME

Why an Out-of-Control Spacecraft Is Bad News for Russia

A resupply craft heading for the space station spins out of control

If you want to get where you’re going (and where you’re going is space) there’s nothing like a Soyuz rocket. The venerable Russian booster was first launched in 1966 and has been flying ever since, reliably delivering cargo and crews to low Earth orbit—except, that is, when it fails. That, alas, appears to be the case at the moment.

A Progress cargo vehicle, destined for the International Space Station (ISS), was launched atop a Soyuz on April 28 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and while it reached orbit as planned just minutes later, everything since then has been something else entirely. The ship, carrying 2.6 tons of supplies—including propellant, oxygen, water, spare parts, crew clothing and spacewalk hardware, as well as a commemorative replica of the Soviet victory banner raised above the German Reichstag building 70 years ago this May—began what NASA has dubbed a “slow spin,” but which looks, from a video shot from within the spacecraft, like a pretty fast one. No matter how it’s described, any out-of-control spin is a very bad thing.

The vehicle had been launched when the ISS was in position to allow the Progress to rendezvous with it after a relatively quick, four-orbit, six-hour chase. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has now changed that to a more traditional 34-orbit—or 2.1 day—pursuit, in hopes of opening up enough time to fix what is wrong with the ship.

MORE: See the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year in Space

The problem appears to have been caused by the failure of two radar antennas to deploy as planned. The Joint Spacecraft Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, Calif., reported that it detected 44 pieces of debris in the vicinity of the spacecraft. The significance of that is unclear—the Progress sheds a shroud before going to work in orbit and some debris could have been left behind—but it’s not a good sign.

None of this represents anything close to an emergency for the ISS crew. “The spacecraft was not carrying any supplies critical for the United States Operating Segment (USOS) of the station,” said NASA spokesman Dan Huot in an e-mail to TIME. “Both the Russian and USOS segments…continue to operate normally and are adequately supplied well beyond the next planned resupply flight.”

But the problem comes at an unhandy time for Russia. Even as Roscosmos was fighting to right the Soyuz, a Dragon resupply vehicle, successfully launched by California-based SpaceX, was docked to the station and going through five weeks of unloading. Both SpaceX and the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences—which flies the Antares supply vehicle—are under contract to make cargo runs to the station. Progress has a far longer success record than either of the comparative upstarts, but the current malfunction is the second since 2011, when another Progress spun out of control just 325 seconds after launch and crashed into the Kazakh steppe.

Roscosmos has enjoyed a monopoly on manned space flight to the station ever since the shuttles were retired in 2011, and briefly owned the market for unmanned runs too—at least until the Dragon made its first successful trip in 2012. By 2017, both Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft are supposed to begin carrying crews to the station. That will hurt more than Russia’s ego: Roscosmos charges $70 million per seat for passengers, and Russia—pinched by low oil prices—could sorely use the cash. It’s not as if SpaceX and Boeing will fly folks for free, of course—the transition to private suppliers means someone’s got to make a profit—but SpaceX founder Elon Musk likes to speak about how important it is to “repatriate” the money the U.S. is currently paying Russia. It’s an idea that has special appeal when relations between Moscow and Washington remain chilly.

None of this means anyone should be dissing the Soyuz or the Progress. They’re sweet machines that have been doing their jobs for a long, long time. And the Russian engineers who build and fly them have proved themselves pros. But technology changes, time passes and markets move. Problems with the Progress can only help move them somewhere else.

TIME A Year In Space

Watch the SpaceX Rocket Landing in Slow Motion

The rocket tipped over due to excess lateral velocity

SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket with the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on Tuesday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, marking the sixth resupply mission for SpaceX to the International Space Station and a second chance at attempting to recover a Falcon 9 rocket. The company released this HD slow motion video on Wednesday that shows the rocket approach SpaceX’s autonomous drone barge landing platform, then tipping over after impact. SpaceX CEO and CTO Elon Musk tweeted:

TIME A Year In Space

SpaceX Rocket Launches for International Space Station

The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from launch at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Apr. 14, 2015.
John Raoux—AP The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from launch at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Apr. 14, 2015.

It is packed with 4,300 pounds of supplies

SpaceX launched a cargo ship to the International Space Station Tuesday at 4:10 p.m. from Florida’s Cape Canaveral.

The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule were scheduled for liftoff Monday, but the launch was postponed because of weather and, as creator Elon Musk put it, the fact that the “moon was in the way.”

One of the deliveries—in what MarketWatch reports as SpaceX’s sixth resupply mission—is an espresso machine for Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.

The Dragon is packed with 4,300 pounds of goods.

TIME Television

Is The Simpsons Actually Set in Australia?

How's this for fan theory?

Hold everything. The Simpsons may not set in the United States as we have all been led to believe — and Simpsons fan, astronomer, and Slate’s Bad Astronomy blogger, Phil Plait has a pretty ingenious reason why. It all has to do with how the show’s creators draw the Moon.

In the episode The Musk Who Fell to Earth, which aired on Jan. 25, SpaceX boss Elon Musk befriends Homer when he arrives in Springfield.

In one scene Musk gazes up at the night sky where a crescent Moon is shining above. But Plait noticed something peculiar about the Moon – it was facing the wrong way for a town supposedly in the U.S.A.

In the northern hemisphere, the tips of a waxing crescent moon point to the left, but in The Simpsons episode they point to the right.

The conclusion? The Simpsons must be set in the southern hemisphere. Mind blown.

[Slate]

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