How does PayPal founder Elon Musk feel about his company’s attempt Friday to launch, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the first-ever commercially designed-and-built rocket intended to take astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station for NASA?
“I feel like that scene in The Deer Hunter,” said Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, during a pre-launch press conference today in advance of Friday morning’s attempt to launch his two-stage, 180-foot, nine-engine Falcon 9 rocket into orbit.
He meant the Russian roulette scene. The one in which American POWs are forced to take turns each putting a revolver, with one bullet, to his head, as their Vietnamese captors lay bets on what will happen when the POW pulls the trigger.
Musk conceded that, historically, maiden launches of rockets have had no better than a 50 percent success rate. Their first three launches of a smaller SpaceX rocket, the Falcon 1, failed.
“I think my personal assessment of the probability of success is 70-80 percent. However, as it has been pointed out, that’s less than the probability of success of Russian roulette,” Musk said. “So if anybody remembers that scene from The Deer Hunter, that’s tomorrow.”
Musk strove to downplay expectations for the Falcon 9 launch — insisting no one should measure the long-term viability of commercial space flight, or of the company’s effort, based on this first launch.
The ramifications are broad and critics are ready. Can private companies launch their own rockets to service the space station, a linchpin in the space strategy proposed by President Barack Obama? Might this be the space shuttle replacement as early as late 2013 or 2014, as Musk suggests? Can an eight-year-old start-up company show that NASA’s work can be done at a fraction of the cost and time? Musk said his company has spent $350 million to $400 million to reach this point – a fraction of what NASA spends to develop new rockets.
His company already has a contract with NASA worth at least $1.6 billion, and as much as $3.1 billion, depending on whether it can deliver cargo to the space station. It also is advertising rates as low as $40 million to carry items into orbit for other clients.
Falcon 9 could go up as early as 11 a.m. Friday. A successful launch would see lift off, separation of the first and second stages, firing of the single-engine second stage, and insertion into Earth orbit in 8-10 minutes. Weather and technical difficulties could push the launch to Saturday.
Musk and SpaceX vice president Ken Bowersox, a former NASA astronaut, said that they would be satisfied with considerably less than 100 percent success. They’d like to see a successful launch. They’d like to see a successful separation. Orbit would be a bonus. Any partial success will allow them to measure and judge a variety of systems, they said.
“Even if we prove out that the first stage functions correctly, I think that would be a good day for a test. And it would be a great day if both stages work correctly,” Musk said.
After this launch, SpaceX will have two or three more demonstration launches, with its Dragon capsule sitting atop the Falcon9. Musk would like to take cargo to and from the space station in a demonstration launch sometime in the second quarter of 2011, though NASA has not signed off on that.
If his company can win NASA approval to carry astronauts in the Dragon, he said that could be done within three years after a contract is signed.
With all the politics surrounding the idea of commercial space flight, Musk said he feels like his company has been “more like a political punching bag.” His is not the only company trying to get commercial rockets ready to service the space station.
“Tomorrow’s launch, or the next day’s launch, should not be a verdict on the viability of commercial space,” he said. “Commercial space is the only way forward. If we go with super expensive government developments, in the absence of some massive increase in the space budget, we will never do anything interesting in space.”