Elon Musk's SpaceX launches first commercial spacecraft

dragon-falconSpace travel just got a lot more interesting with the launch of the first privately funded commercial spacecraft, the SpaceX Dragon capsule. The spacecraft is carrying 453.6 kilograms of science experiments and other supplies to the International Space Station, which is operated jointly by the US, Russia, Europe and Japan. An unmanned Falcon rocket took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida yesterday. Despite a problem with one of the nine first-stage engines, the rocket placed the SpaceX Dragon capsule successfully into its intended orbit. 

NASA has a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX for 12 resupply missions and is relying on private business to keep the space station running now that the shuttle fleet has been officially retired. Unlike other supply spacecraft, SpaceX craft are reusable and can return supplies back to Earth. The company intends to convert the unmanned Dragon capsules into manned vessels to carry astronauts to the space station in three years time.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is owned by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, who named the capsules Dragon after Puff the Magic Dragon to get back at critics who, only a decade before, told him the idea of a private spacecraft was a fantasy not worth pursuing. The rocket name Falcon comes from the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.

The story of Elon Musk is fascinating in itself. An entrepreneur, engineer and inventor, Musk also co-founded Tesla Motors, a company that builds revolutionary electric cars, and SolarCity, one of the largest suppliers of solar energy in the US. I didn't know much about him before I wrote this article, but he's an amazing guy. Read the Wikipedia entry on Elon Musk here.

Are we getting ever closer to a privately funded mission to Mars? Given that the US government appears to have few real plans or the political will to launch a manned mission, perhaps Musk and SpaceX are our only sensible hope?

In 2006, before Musk had won the contract with NASA to resupply the international space station, he discussed space travel costs on his SpaceX website and outlined his ambitions for space and the human race.

"The very purpose of SpaceX is to lower the cost and increase the reliability of spaceflight by a factor of ten or more (relative to current US pricing) and everyone at our company is hell bent on making that happen. Humanity needs to become a true space-faring civilization, where spaceflight is affordable by normal citizens and extending life to another planet is realistic, and the fundamental barriers to making that happen are cost and reliability."

In a more recent article in Bloomberg, Musk stated that he was on target to get a spacecraft to the red planet in 10 to 15 years, perhaps with him on board. "I would like to die on Mars," he added. "Just not on impact."

If you've watched Iron Man 2, Elon Musk had a small cameo. The SpaceX factory was also used as a filming location. Jon Favreau, director of the Iron Man movies, told Time Magazine that Musk was the inspiration for Favreau's film depiction of genius billionaire Tony Stark.

Watch the launch of the world's first commerical spacecraft on YouTube below.


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