MONEY space travel

SpaceX Wants to Send You to Mars

The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX on a cargo resupply service mission to the International Space Station (ISS), lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida January 10, 2015. An unmanned Space Exploration Technologies mission blasted off on Saturday carrying cargo for the ISS, but efforts to reland the rocket on a sea platform failed, the firm said. The Dragon cargo capsule itself was successfully launched into space and is expected to dock with the space station on Monday.
Mike Brown—Reuters

Elon Musk and his reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets pose a real threat to the economics of Boeing's and Lockheed's orbital satellite space launch franchise.

“I am Elon Musk, CEO/CTO of a rocket company … Zip2, PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity. Started off doing software engineering and now do aerospace & automotive …

Looking forward to your questions.”

With those words began a singular event on the Web, as Elon Musk, CEO of — as he noted — electric car company Tesla TESLA MOTORS INC. TSLA -0.7797% , of solar power lessor SolarCity SOLARCITY CORP COM USD0.0001 SCTY -1.5892% , and private space exploration firm SpaceX as well opened himself up for questions on Reddit earlier this month.

You can imagine what happened next.

Fans swarmed. Bedlam ensued. And over the next several hours, Elon Musk fielded every question his fans could throw at him.

Missing in action

Curiously, while Elon Musk serves as titular head of two publicly traded companies, Tesla and SolarCity, neither of those got much attention in last Tuesday’s Reddit discussion. (Indeed, Musk didn’t mention either one by name, even once). Instead, all the action surrounded the one company that Musk has not yet deigned to IPO to the public: SpaceX.

But what did he have to say about it?

Elon on … spaceplanes

“If you want to get to orbit or beyond, go with pure rockets. It is not like Von Braun and Korolev didn’t know about airplanes and they were really smart dudes.”

There’s been a lot of talk lately about spacecraft that fly into the upper atmosphere and from there release payloads into orbit. DARPA is working on one bird capable of high altitude payload delivery. Stratolaunch Systems has another. Britain’s got a third. But Elon Musk isn’t worried about these competitors at all. In fact, he seems to kind of dismiss them.

Elon on … reusable rockets

“We could make the 2nd stage of Falcon reusable. … There is no meaningful limit [to the number of times Falcon 9R could be refueled and relaunched]. We would have to replace a few parts that experience thermal stress after 40 cycles, but the rest of the engine would be fine.”

Instead of spaceplanes, Elon Musk is placing his big bet on the potential to turn the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket — which already costs less than rockets launched by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Lockheed Martin LOCKHEED MARTIN CORPORATION LMT -2.1455% and Boeing BOEING COMPANY BA -1.6308% — into a true ULA-killer.

Key to this effort will be turning Falcon 9 into a “reusable” rocket — one whose first, and potentially even its second stages can descend back to Earth after launch, and land safely for recovery, refueling, and relaunching with a new payload a few days later.

Musk thinks a reusable rocket can potentially save taxpayers $50 billion or more on the cost of satellite launches by the U.S. government. And as we now know from the Reddit discussion, Musk doesn’t see “wear and tear” on a Falcon 9 rocket being a limiting factor in those savings. While there certainly must be some shelf life on how often any single rocket can be reused before it must be replaced (obsolescence alone is probably one such factor), Musk seems to be saying that for all intents and purposes, a properly maintained reusable Falcon 9 will be indefinitely reusable.

The mission to Mars

“Goal is 100 metric tons of useful payload to the surface of Mars. This obviously requires a very big spaceship and booster system. … At first, I was thinking we would just scale up Falcon Heavy, but it looks like … [the] default plan is to have a sea level and vacuum version of Raptor, much like Merlin. … [Raptor will boast] a little over 230 metric tons (~500 klbf) of thrust per engine, but we will have a lot of them :)”

In the short term, Elon Musk and his reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets pose a real threat to the economics of Boeing’s and Lockheed’s orbital satellite space launch franchise. Already, SpaceX is underpricing the competition, and if he succeeds in making Falcon 9 truly reusable, space launch prices will fall even further.

But SpaceX poses an even more existential threat to Boeing and Lockheed in the long term. That is to say, if you believe that the “long-term” future of spaceflight is to actually fly through space — as opposed to just heaving chunks of metal into orbit, there to circle the globe.

SpaceX calls this threat the “Mars Colonial Transport,” or “MCT,” a true spacecraft capable of sending 100 tons of supplies and/or 100 live human passengers, between planets. For comparison, that’s a goal already 25 times bigger than that of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which Lockheed Martin is building for NASA. And MCT will boast new “Raptor” engines to match.

With a nine-engine configuration similar to that used on the Falcon 9, a first-stage “Raptor 9″ core would boast 4.5 million pounds of force — roughly half the 8.4 million pounds of thrust offered by the Space Launch System that Boeing is developing for NASA. A three-part configuration featuring a core, and two “core-like” booster rockets, though, would provide 50%more thrust than Boeing’s SLS.

In other words, at the same time as ULA is working out the details of its most advanced and most capable space launch system ever, SpaceX is, too. And its spaceship is both bigger and better.

The upshot: After hearing what Elon Musk had to say last week, Boeing and Lockheed Martin should be shaking in their spaceboots.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: Google Invests in SpaceX

The investment could make SpaceX valued at $10 billion

Google invested $1 billion in SpaceX, valuing SpaceX at $10 billion or more. SpaceX, the private space transportation company backed by Elon Musk, may be what Google needs to expand into providing Internet-by-satellite to billions.

See what this might mean for both companies in today’s Know Right Now, and read more here.

TIME space

See the SpaceX Rocket Crash Land in Middle of the Ocean

SpaceX Rocket Crash
GIF by Mia Tramz for TIME

“Close but no cigar,” Elon Musk tweeted

SpaceX launched a resupply ship to the International Space Station last week, but it narrowly failed a test to securely navigate the rocket back to earth.

The company founded by Elon Musk believes that a reusable rocket could drastically reduce the costs of space transportation, and as you can see in the GIF above compiled from images that Musk tweeted, they’re very close to finalizing the technology. In the first attempt, the Falcon 9 rocket descended back to floating platform about 200 miles off the Florida coast. But it was a hard landing, and the rocket was largely wrecked.

“Close but no cigar,” Musk tweeted at the time.

 

TIME space

Watch TIME’s Jeff Kluger Talk About the History and Impact of SpaceX

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launch early Saturday was a success, despite the failed soft landing attempt of the rocket booster at sea.

See TIME’s senior science writer and editor at large, Jeff Kluger, explain the history and importance of SpaceX.

TIME space

SpaceX Aborts Launch of Falcon 9 Rocket

The Falcon 9 rocket to be launched by SpaceX on a cargo re-supply service mission to the International Space Station sits on launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station  in Cape Canaveral, Florida
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket sits on launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Jan. 5, 2015. Scott Audette—Reuters

The soonest SpaceX can try again is Friday

(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) — SpaceX has called off its flight to the International Space Station.

The unmanned Falcon rocket was supposed to blast off before sunrise Tuesday. But the countdown was halted with just one minute remaining. The soonest SpaceX can try again is Friday. No reason was immediately given for the launch abort.

The Dragon capsule aboard the rocket contains more than 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments ordered up by NASA. That’s the primary objective for SpaceX. But the California-based company was to attempt an even more extraordinary feat once the Dragon is on its way: flying the booster rocket to a platform in the Atlantic. No one has ever pulled off such a touchdown.

SpaceX’s billionaire founder Elon Musk says recovering and reusing rockets could speed up launches and drive down costs.

TIME space

Elon Musk Raises the Stakes — and Lowers the Rhetoric

A man known for salesmanship approaches a big launch with uncharacteristic humility

A dose of Elon Musk has always been like a shot of strong drink. You think you can handle him, think you’re impervious to him—think you can hear him go on about private missions to Mars at just $500,000 per seat or freaky sounding hyperloops that would pack people into aluminum tubes and fire them from place to place at 800 mph (1,290 k/h)—and stay skeptical and sober. Then he starts talking, the buzz hits and you’re quickly calculating how fast you could come up with 500 grand for your own Martian holiday.

Part of the reason people believe in Musk is that Musk believes so wholly in Musk—even if he’s not exactly humble about it. Here he was speaking to Wired magazine in 2008, when SpaceX got off to a stumbling start after three straight launch failures: “Optimism, pessimism, f**k that; we’re going to make it happen. As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”

Here was Musk in 2012, after one of his Dragon spacecraft splashed down following its first successful mission to the ISS: “In terms of things that are actually launching, we are the American space program.”

And here was Musk that same year, on the people who doubt him: “I pity them. It doesn’t make any sense. They’ll be fighting on the wrong side of yesterday’s war.”

That’s why it’s been such a happy surprise to hear him describe the upcoming launch of his Falcon 9 Booster, scheduled for 6:20 AM ET Tuesday. It will be the fifth unmanned resupply run that his company, SpaceX, will make to the International Space Station (ISS), but the first that will attempt to recover the first stage booster intact. That sounds like a very small deal, but it’s a very big one—especially given the way Musk plans to go about it.

One of the reasons space travel is so bloody expensive is that it’s so bloody wasteful. Expendable boosters—as their names make plain—are one-use-only machines, discarded stage by stage as they climb, with only the payload reaching space. The Saturn V moon rocket, easily the most impressive booster ever built, was also the most breathtaking example of throwaway tech. It stood 363 ft. (110 ft.) tall at launch, but the only piece to make it home was the 9 ft. (2.7 m) pod that carried the astronauts. The rest? Junk—most of it now lying on the ocean floor.

The shuttle program tried to remedy that. The ship’s whale-like external tank was dumped in the drink but the twin solid rocket boosters separated and returned by parachute when their fuel was expended, to be recovered and re-used. The shuttle itself, of course, came home, too. But the whole idea was oversold, with promises that shuttles could be checked out, gassed up and relaunched in a matter of weeks, slashing the price-per-pound of payload dramatically. Those weeks, however, turned out to be months, and every launch cost on the order of $400 million—not exactly a low-cost trucking service.

Musk aims to do things differently. After the upcoming Falcon 9 booster takes flight, its spent first stage won’t just tumble back into the sea. Rather, it will retain enough fuel to right itself and reignite for three separate burns, slowing its plunge from 2,900 mph (4,700 k/h) to 600 mph (965 k/h) and finally just 4.5 mph (7.2 k/h). Fins arrayed around the perimeter of the rocket will control its lift and attitude, and legs will allow to land upright on a 300 ft (91 m) by 170 ft. (52 m) floating platform that has already been built and is anchored in place 200 miles (322 km) off the east coast of Florida.

There are, admittedly, about one jillion things that could go wrong with this plan. Musk claims that the booster can land within 33 ft (9.1 m) of an intended target, but with the leg span of the rocket a full 70 ft (21 m) and and platform’s mere 170 ft. width, that leaves very little margin for error. The rocket stage itself is 140 ft. (42 m) tall—about the height of a 14 story building—but because of its relatively light weight and cylindrical design, SpaceX’s own website compares trying to stabilize the stage as the equivalent of balancing “a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a windstorm.”

That’s fine for the PR-minded folks who write the website and are in the business of lowering expectations so they can easily exceed them. But surely Musk—who is his own kind of windstorm—will be less reticent. Not so. He puts the likelihood of success on this first attempt at less than 50-50, and, in an interview with The New York Times, admitted that it could take a dozen flights before the new landing system will reach even 80% to 90% reliability, which sounds impressive but is still below what it will cost to keep costs as low as Musk believes he can drive them.

It’s hard to say what’s behind the candor and caution coming from a man known best for boasts and bravado. Part of it may be the humbling that Orbital Sciences—SpaceX’s main competitor—experienced when one of its rockets exploded en route to its own space station rendezvous in October. Another part, surely, was the far worse loss of Richard Branson’s SpaceShipOne shortly after, which cost the life of a pilot.

Musk is now the biggest name in the frontier field of private space travel and that—plus the realization that he’s no more immune to disaster than anyone else is—cannot help but have a sobering effect. Space seems easier when you’re the upstart, launching only the vaporware of your promises. When you start flying metal, the stakes go way up—and the rhetoric, accordingly, goes way down. Elon, welcome to the big leagues.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: Elon Musk Debuts New Rocket on Twitter

He revealed the improved Falcon 9R

The billionaire CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, decided to show off his new rockets Saturday. He revealed SpaceX’s newly improved rocket, the Falcon 9R, which now has four adjustable wings. The 9R’s “X Wings” are designed to deploy after takeoff and will work with rocket thrusters for navigation, which Musk showed in a video he shared on Twitter.

Musk also revealed that SpaceX is creating rocket landing pads at sea, which will be used as refueling stations for rockets before launching back into space.

TIME Companies

Elon Musk’s SpaceX Plans to Launch Internet Satellites

Tesla Motors Inc. Makes Announcement About First Battery Gigafactory In Nevada
Elon Musk, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tesla Motors Inc., attends a news conference at the Nevada State Capitol building in Carson City, Nevada, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

More details to come in "two to three months"

Elon Musk’s space travel startup SpaceX is developing a series of advanced micro-satellites to deliver low-cost Internet access to the masses. The billionaire entrepreneur revealed the plans Monday on his Twitter account, noting that the official announcement is still two to three months away.

SpaceX’s business primarily involves shuttling cargo and soon astronauts to the International Space Station. The Wall Street Journal reported the new venture will include the launch of 700 satellites weighing under 250 pounds each, but Musk disputed the details of the Journal article, saying on Twitter that it was “wrong on several important points.”

TIME space

NASA’s Antares Explosion: What it Means

An unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket explodes shortly after takeoff at Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. on Oct. 28, 2014.
An unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket explodes shortly after takeoff at Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. on Oct. 28, 2014. Jay Diem—AP

The rocket's fortunately fatality-free failure to launch spells trouble for one of NASA's major contractors

The good news—the very, very good news—is that no one was aboard Orbital Sciences’ Antares booster when it exploded just six seconds after leaving the launch pad on Wallops Island, Va. at 6:30 PM EDT on Oct. 28. It was the fifth launch of the Antares and the fourth that was headed for the International Space Station (ISS) on a resupply mission. The booster made it barely 200 feet off the ground.

The bad news—the very, very bad news—is what this means for Orbital as a continued player in the competition to supply the ISS. It was in 2008 that Orbital (which has a long history in the space biz) and Elon Musk’s SpaceX (which had none at all) won a $3.5 billion NASA contract, with Orbital taking $1.9 billion of that for eight flights. Halfway through the contract, the company was looking to re-up, and this will not reflect well on them at the bargaining table.

Orbital was never a serious part of the even more furious competition to take over the manned portion of NASA’s low Earth orbit portfolio. The winners of that battle, named Sept. 16, were SpaceX again, and Boeing—a venerable part of the NASA family and prime contractor of the ISS. Tonight’s explosion would be a lot more worrisome if one of those two—already gearing up to carry people—had been responsible. But for Orbital, it will be bad enough.

Worse for the company is CEO David Thompson’s admission on Oct. 29 that part of the problem could be the AJ-26 engines used in the deceased booster’s first stage. Originally designed by the Soviet Union (that’s not a typo—we’re talking about Russia long before the fall of communism) the engines were later updated and retrofitted for the Antares booster.

It is too early to say if the AJ-26’s were indeed responsible for the explosion, but old hardware is old hardware and in an era in which the likes of Musk are starting with a blank page when they design their engines, taking outdated stuff off the shelf is not the way to inspire confidence. In 2012, a catty Musk made that point, telling Wired magazine:

One of our competitors, Orbital Sciences, has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke. It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s—I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.

Musk being Musk, that’s more than a little hyperbolic, but the snark still stung Orbital. It is an especially bad time for any aerospace company to have to be defending the use of Russian-made engines, ever since spring when U.S. sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Crimea led Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin to mock America’s dependence on Russia’s Soyuz rockets to reach the International Space Station. “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry,” Rogozin said, “I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

More worrisome was Rogozin’s threat to limit sales to the U.S. the RD-180 engines that are used in America’s workhorse Atlas V rocket. That bit of bluster soured politicians on continuing to do space business with Russia at all and kick-started efforts to develop a domestic alternative to the RD-180. Now comes Orbital with an older, far worse Russian engine that just may have caused an entire rocket and its cargo to go up in flames.

A reputation-saving case the company could plausibly make—though it would be suicide to try—is the “stuff blows up” argument. Space travel is notoriously hard and rockets are notoriously ill-tempered. They are, after all, little more than massive canisters of exploding gasses and liquids, with the weight of the fuel often much greater than the weight of the rocket itself. This is not remotely the first time launch controllers have witnessed such a fiery spectacle on the pad and it won’t be the last. Realistically, there will never be a last.

But Orbital is supposed to be a senior member of the space community, not one of the freshmen like SpaceX or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. No exploding rocket is good—especially when contracts are ending and NASA is again looking for free agents. It’s much worse for an outfit that’s been in the game for a while. Final determination of how bad the damage is will await the investigation into the cause of the explosion. But one thing’s certain: you wouldn’t want to be on the company’s Vienna, Va. campus tonight—on what is surely going to be the first of a lot of very long nights to come.

TIME Automakers

Tesla Motors’ New ‘D’ Cars Are All-Wheel Drive, Not Self-Drive

US-AUTO-IT-TECHNOLOGY-ENEGY-TESLA
Tesla founder and chief executive Elon Musk unveils a new dual-engine chassis at the Hawthorne Airport in Los Angeles on Oct. 9, 2014 Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images

The “D” in Tesla’s big reveal stands not for “self-driving," but for “dual motor”

Tesla Motors on Thursday night disappointed some auto-market watchers’ expectations that it would put out a self-driving car — but the electric car juggernaut did announce the release of a higher tech version of its Model S car, with all-wheel drive and rapid acceleration rivaling that of luxury vehicles, USA Today reports.

The tripped-out new Model S will have all-wheel drive, plus acceleration of 0-60 mph in just 3.2 seconds, says the newspaper. It can also reach a top speed of 155 mph, up from the Model S’s peak velocity of 130 mph.

“This car is nuts. It’s like taking off from a carrier deck,” Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, told press assembled at Los Angeles’ Hawthorne airport, where his commercial space travel company SpaceX is also based.

The “D” cars will also come with a package of new safety features, including the ability to read speed-limit signs and shift speeds, USA Today says.

Tesla will release three versions of the upgraded car under the “D” designation. The all-wheel drive version without the acceleration boost will be a $4,000 add-on to the basic and mid-level models of the Model S, which starts at $71,000, says the Associated Press. The base price for the all-wheel drive car with boosted acceleration, dubbed the P85D, is $120,000.

The P85D will go on sale in December, while the other versions will go on sale in February, the Associated Press reports.

Musk had fueled speculation about the announcement in Los Angeles with a tweet that the company would roll out something he referred to just as “the D,” plus “something else.” He also tweeted a photo that appeared to be of Tesla’s Model S car.

Some Tesla fans had speculated that the unveiling might be of a ramped-up version of the Model S — but observers had debated if the “D” referred to an automated driving feature, or all-wheel drive.

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