HAWTHORNE, Calif. — The coming debate over the future of the American space program will, in no small part, revolve around this question: Should the United States hire Elon Musk, at a cost of a few billion dollars, to run a taxi service for American astronauts?
President Obama’s budget request for 2011 calls for dismantling the Constellation program — the system of spacecraft that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been developing for returning astronauts to the Moon — and turning to private enterprise to provide transportation to and from the International Space Station. The budget asks for $6 billion over five years, which would most likely be split among two or three competitors . That is the chance that Mr. Musk, 38, and his eight-year-old company, SpaceX, have been waiting for. Smart, brash and prickly, with the accent of his native South Africa, Mr. Musk promises that SpaceX will be able to provide space trips aboard its Falcon 9 rockets at $20 million a seat — a small fraction of the cost of a ride on the space shuttles or the Russian Soyuz rocket. And Mr. Musk, says he could do it in two or three years once he signs a contract with NASA. “Really, the whole purpose of SpaceX from the beginning has been human spaceflight,” Mr. Musk said last June to a blue-ribbon panel reviewing NASA’s human spaceflight program. When he started SpaceX in 2002, Mr. Musk was an Internet entrepreneur who had made his fortune with PayPal. SpaceX now has nearly 900 employees. It successfully launched a small Falcon 1 rocket into orbit in 2008, and successfully deployed a satellite last year. It has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to bring supplies to the International Space Station in its larger Falcon 9 rocket. “I absolutely believe he can do everything he says he can,” said Peter H. Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which seeks to encourage space development through technology contests. “I’m a fan of the approach that SpaceX has taken.” Aerospace giants like Boeing and Lockheed Martin will almost certainly also submit bids for the new NASA contracts, but SpaceX has drawn much of the attention, both positive and negative. Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, the home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which has led development of the Constellation rockets, has strongly defended the current program and discounted potential commercial competitors like SpaceX. In a statement responding to the administration’s proposal, Mr. Shelby said the new plan amounted to a “death march” for the astronaut side of NASA and lambasted the claims of commercial companies as “cure-all hype.” To the blue-ribbon panel last June, Mr. Musk said he expected that all of the pieces of the first Falcon 9 would arrive at SpaceX’s launching pad in Florida by the end of the summer and that the maiden flight would take off by the end of the year. Mr. Musk told the panel that this year SpaceX would be “doing our flights that actually go to the space station, carrying cargo and bringing it back.” The first Falcon 9 flight has still not taken off. The second stage arrived at Cape Canaveral last month, about half a year later than Mr. Musk stated to the panel. The first launching is now scheduled for no sooner than March 22. The target for first delivery of cargo to the space station is now sometime in the first half of 2011. That would still be an impressive achievement. “As a payload launcher, I think they’re doing very well,” said Joseph R. Fragola, a safety consultant who works on NASA’s Constellation program and who has also had technical conversations with Mr. Musk to offer advice on the SpaceX rockets. But he doubts that the Falcon 9 can get off the ground with astronauts as quickly and easily as Mr. Musk expects. “Theoretically, it is possible,” Dr. Fragola said, “but the history of development of crewed launch vehicles says it’s extremely unlikely.” A New Rocket Factory The headquarters of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation — SpaceX’s official name — certainly look like the future. Located near Los Angeles International Airport, the building’s lobby has the sleekness of a boutique hotel. The front half is mostly open space filled with designer cubicles for the engineers. Even Mr. Musk’s work area is a cubicle, although his is large enough to hold a sofa and an executive-size desk.