The name will come up a lot today - he helped change the way we make online payments (PayPal), developed a cool-looking electric car (Tesla), and now he's making history with the Space X Dragon capsule hooked up to the International Space Station. That's quite a record, and it dramatically points up the entrepreneurial wherewithal that manages to still come out of California. Much of that drive - not to mention brainpower - is laid out in a 2004 New Yorker piece by Ian Parker. It provides a primer on how the commercially funded space industry is taking shape. Given Space X's achievements, it's well worth reading:
An alternative space community-- predominantly libertarian in spirit, and sometimes Vulcan in its wardrobe--had been pressing since the late nineteen-seventies for an end to NASA's historical monopoly on American spaceflight. That case was reinforced by the destruction of the Challenger shuttle, in 1986. Even those who had once been inspired by NASA began to see the agency's early achievements as disguised disappointments. "The American space program was, for all practical purposes, an attempt to show the Russians that we could do Communism better than they could," Jeff Greason, the president of XCOR, a Mojave-based rocket-plane company, said recently. "I'm not sorry we went to the moon, but there's very little doubt in my mind that had Apollo never existed we would be further along today than we are." In pursuing grandiose projects, he said, NASA overlooked more practical approaches to space travel.
By the mid-nineteen-nineties, more than a hundred civilian satellites had been put in orbit, and the idea of private rockets launching new satellites into space began to seem a realistic business proposition. At about the same time, the wilder idea of entrepreneurial manned space travel started to migrate out of science fiction. Some of those in the generation of cheated Americans--who had regarded the space race as a private invitation to the moon, then seen the party canceled--began to acquire great personal fortunes, allowing the alternative-space rhetoric to be backed by capital. As Elon Musk, who sold PayPal to eBay for one and a half billion dollars in 2002, and who now runs SpaceX, a rocket company near the Los Angeles International Airport, recently described it, "You had to have some kind of pre-boom to supply the capital to get the rocket boom going, and that only happened with personal computers and the Internet."
Let's also not forget another big venture announced by entrepreneur Paul Allen, aircraft designer Burt Rutan, and, yes, Musk, in which a multistage rocket would be released at high altitude from a six-engine jet. The rocket would carry cargo and people to orbit.
Photo: Inside Space X's factory in Hawthorne