South Africa’s other space pioneer

Ask most South Africans who our most successful internet entrepreneur and space adventurer is and they’ll tell you it’s Mark Shuttleworth. But Elon Musk might just go down in history for having a bigger impact than our first Afronaut.

Musk is South Africa’s other Shuttleworth, and his success with internet start-ups has also propelled him into space — or to dream of cheap space flight. His company, SpaceX, is weeks away from launching its first rocket, Falcon I, from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean — at a fraction of the cost charged by commercial space-launch companies.

His first client, ironically, is the United States’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the same Department of Defence agency credited with building the forerunner to the Internet.

Most impressive of all is that Musk is only 34, and that his three-year-old company has built the rocket and its Merlin engine from scratch — something unheard of in the US space-aviation establishment. The engine, he says, is the first new design to come out of the US in 25 years.

Musk could quite legitimately have sat back after his 31st birthday and concluded he had made his contribution to the Internet generation. The Internet wunderkind successfully ran PayPal’s IPO, one of few such successes in 2002, and then sold the company he co-founded to eBay for $1,5-billion. PayPal is the gold standard of Internet payments, and is considered one of the great, all-time successes in enabling e-commerce. It is used by millions of people every day.

And this wasn’t his first major Internet venture, either. He sold his previous start-up, Zip2 — whose media-company clients included The New York Times — to Compaq in 1999 for a cool $300-million, according to Wired. Like the more famous co-founders of Google, Musk also dropped out of a Sanford doctorate to start Zip2.

By September 2002, with his wealth estimated at $165-million, he was number 23 on Fortune magazine’s list of the 40 wealthiest people under 40, the tech news site noted.

But his dream was to get into space, and ultimately to Mars. He boldly announced in 2003 that SpaceX could cut the cost of launching payloads into space by as much as two-thirds. Falcon I will cost about $15-million to launch, compared with anything from $60-million to $80-million. If he is successful, the US Air Force has booked a $100-million contract until 2010, according to the SpaceX website. Take that Nasa!

“SpaceX may be the company that builds the rocket that takes the first person to Mars,” he told Carte Blanche last weekend, as he laid out his space plans to a nation that probably never knew he was one of our own.

Mars is the “Holy Grail” of space, he says. “If we can build something that is capable of taking people and equipment to Mars, such that it can service a transportation infrastructure for humanity becoming a multi- planet species — which I think is a very, very important objective — then I would consider the mission of SpaceX successful, at that point,” he told Carte Blanche.

Space hasn’t been this sexy since the heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. And, given the problems Nasa’s space shuttles are having, the most lofty of adventure pursuits needs a new hero, which Musk seems to be.

Interest has been piqued by last year’s successful flights of SpaceShipOne to 100km up, thereby winning the $10-million Ansari X Prize competition. It was the first privately financed flight to break the sub-orbital barrier that technically put it in space.

This new space race has attracted a new breed of what The New York Times calls “thrillionaires”, a new kind of space capitalist. Most prominent among them is Microsoft co-founder Paul G Allen, who backed the SpaceShipOne programme.

Richard Branson was quick to jump on board with plans for a six-seater SpaceShipTwo for taking (well) paying passengers under the aptly named Virgin Galactic brand. Tickets for a three-hour trip, and three-minutes of weightlessness, are expected to cost $200 000.

“The fundamental problem is cost of access to space,” Musk told Wired in 2003. Just ask Shuttleworth, who reportedly paid $20-million just to get himself into space, spending many months in Russia learning Russian and how to be a Cosmonaut. It’s not hard to imagine those dollars funding much more of the Russian space programme than just his seat. “I would pay $20-million dollars not to spend six months in Russia,” Musk said when asked about Shuttleworth’s route into space.

If Musk does board one of his passenger-carrying Falcon V rockets for Mars, he will be the third South African, after Mike Melvill piloted SpaceShipOne on the first of its two flights, to win the X Prize.

The Internet is awash with praise for Musk and what he has done with SpaceX, which he has funded with $100-million of his own money. “I like people who tilt at windmills, whose unorthodoxy bites other people in the ankles,” Keith Cowing, a former Nasa official who runs the Nasa Watch website, told Wired. “I wouldn’t call [Musk] a friend, but I’m impressed with his lack of pretension. If he’s successful, he could really throw a monkey wrench into everyone’s way of doing business.”

Musk is a Pretoria High School graduate, which is more well known for producing Springboks such as current captain John Smit.

When Shuttleworth went into space, an SMS did the rounds playing on South Africa’s long-standing sports rivalry with Australia. It read: “SA 1, Oz 0”. Soon it could well read: “SA 3, Oz 0”. Oddly, that is Smit’s score this year against the Wallabies, too.

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