paceX Crew Dragon Demo-2: First Commercial pace Taxi a Pit top on Musk’s Mars Quest

It all started with the dream of growing a rose on Mars.

That vision, Elon Musk’s vision, morphed into a shake-up of the old space industry, and a fleet of new private rockets. Now, those rockets will launch NAA astronauts from Florida to the International pace tation — the first time a for-profit company will carry astronauts into the cosmos.

It’s a milestone in the effort to commercialise space. But for Musk’s company, paceX, it’s also the latest milestone in a wild ride that began with epic failures and the threat of bankruptcy.

If the company’s eccentric founder and CEO has his way, this is just the beginning: He’s planning to build a city on the red planet, and live there.

“What I really want to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible, make it seem as though it’s something that we can do in our lifetimes and that you can go,” Musk told a cheering congress of space professionals in Mexico in 2016.

Musk “is a revolutionary change” in the space world, says Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, whose Jonathan’s pace Report has tracked launches and failures for decades.

Ex-astronaut and former Commercial paceflight Federation chief Michael Lopez-Alegria says, “I think history will look back at him like a da Vinci figure.”

Musk has become best known for Tesla, his audacious effort to build an electric vehicle company. But paceX predates it.

At 30, Musk was already wildly rich from selling his Internet financial company PayPal and its predecessor Zip2. He arranged a series of lunches in ilicon Valley in 2001 with G cott Hubbard, who had been NAA’s Mars czar and was then running the agency’s Ames Research Center.

Musk wanted to somehow grow a rose on the red planet, show it to the world and inspire school children, recalls Hubbard.

“His real focus was having life on Mars,” says Hubbard, a tanford University professor who now chairs paceX’s crew safety advisory panel.

The big problem, Hubbard told him, was building a rocket affordable enough to go to Mars. Less than a year later pace Exploration Technologies, called paceX, was born.

There are many space companies and like all of them, paceX is designed for profit. But what’s different is that behind that profit motive is a goal, which is simply to “Get Elon to Mars,” McDowell says. “By having that longer-term vision, that’s pushed them to be more ambitious and really changed things.”

Everyone at paceX, from senior vice presidents to the barista who offers its in-house cappuccinos and FroYo, “will tell you they are working to make humans multi-planetary,” says former paceX Director of pace Operations Garrett Reisman, an ex-astronaut now at the University of outhern California.

Musk founded the company just before NAA ramped up the notion of commercial space.

Traditionally, private firms built things or provided services for NAA, which remained the boss and owned the equipment. The idea of bigger roles for private companies has been around for more than 50 years, but the market and technology weren’t yet right.

NAA’s two deadly space shuttle accidents — Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 — were pivotal, says W Henry Lambright, a professor of public policy at yracuse University.

When Columbia disintegrated, NAA had to contemplate a post-space shuttle world. That’s where private companies came in, Lambright says.

After Columbia, the agency focused on returning astronauts to the Moon, but still had to get cargo and astronauts to the space station, says ean O’Keefe, who was NAA’s administrator at the time. A 2005 pilot project helped private companies develop ships to bring cargo to the station.

paceX got some of that initial funding. The company’s first three launches failed. The company could have just as easily failed too, but NAA stuck by paceX and it started to pay off, Lambright says.

“You can’t explain paceX without really understanding how NAA really kind of nurtured it in the early days,” Lambright says. “In a way, paceX is kind of a child of NAA.”

ince 2010, NAA has spent $6 billion (roughly Rs. 45,586 crores) to help private companies get people into orbit, with paceX and Boeing the biggest recipients, says Phil McAlister, NAA’s commercial spaceflight director.

NAA plans to spend another $2.5 billion (roughly Rs. 18,984 crores) to purchase 48 astronaut seats to the space station in 12 different flights, he says. At a little more than $50 million (roughly Rs. 379 crores) a ride, it’s much cheaper than what NAA has paid Russia for flights to the station.

tarting from scratch has given paceX an advantage over older firms and NAA that are stuck using legacy technology and infrastructure, O’Keefe says.

And paceX tries to build everything itself, giving the firm more control, Reisman says. The company saves money by reusing rockets, and it has customers aside from NAA.

The California company now has 6,000 employees. Its workers are young, highly caffeinated and put in 60- to 90-hour weeks, Hubbard and Reisman say. They also embrace risk more than their NAA counterparts.

Decisions that can take a year at NAA can be made in one or two meetings at paceX, says Reisman, who still advises the firm.

In 2010, a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad had a cracked nozzle extension on an engine. Normally that would mean rolling the rocket off the pad and a fix that would delay launch more than a month.

But with NAA’s permission, paceX engineer Florence Li was hoisted into the rocket nozzle with a crane and harness. Then, using what were essentially garden shears, she “cut the thing, we launched the next day and it worked,” Reisman says.

Musk is paceX’s public and unconventional face — smoking marijuana on a popular podcast, feuding with local officials about opening his Tesla plant during the pandemic, naming his newborn child “X Æ A-12.” But insiders say aerospace industry veteran Gwynne hotwell, the president and chief operating officer, is also key to the company’s success.

“The paceX way is actually a combination of Musk’s imagination and creativity and drive and hotwell’s sound management and responsible engineering,” McDowell says.

But it all comes back to Musk’s dream. Former NAA chief O’Keefe says Musk has his eccentricities, huge doses of self-confidence and persistence, and that last part is key: “You have the capacity to get through a setback and look … toward where you’re trying to go.”

For Musk, it’s Mars.


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