Elon Musk has a lot on his mind these days. “I’m simultaneously excited and nervous,” says the CEO and founder of commercial rocket company SpaceX.
If all goes as planned, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon capsule on top will lift off from Cape Canaveral on Saturday on a mission never before attempted by a private rocket company.
From the moment the engines ignite, there will be high drama, quite literally.
“We’ve done everything we possibly can think of to ensure the success of this mission. Despite that there’s still significant risk,” Musk says.
Once in orbit, the Dragon spacecraft will head for a rendezvous with the International Space Station. After a series of systems checks and maneuvers, U.S. astronaut Don Pettit will use the station’s robotic arm to reach out, grab Dragon and berth it to the station.
“Dragon is doing this all autonomously, so there’s a lot of intelligence on board,” Musk says. “It’s not as though there’s somebody on Dragon with a joystick who’s maneuvering the craft as there would have been in say the Apollo era.”
Musk, a billionaire who co-founded PayPal, readily admits he’s driven. But why get involved in the business of rockets? He already owns Tesla, an up-and-coming electric car company. “I want to be involved in things or help make things happen that have a significant positive effect on the future of the world,” he says.
Musk believes commercial companies will be a huge part of the future of space travel and will eventually take people to Mars. “I think humanity becoming a multi-planet species is one of the most important things we could possibly accomplish, and we should try to do that,” he says.
The immediate challenge of getting his Dragon spacecraft to the ISS is a small first step, but one with profound implications. NASA with its limited budget decided to turn over to commercial companies the job of ferrying cargo and astronauts to the station. NASA could then concentrate its money and efforts on developing a new, big rocket and spacecraft to take humans to Mars.
There are several commercial companies designing and building vehicles for the space station mission including, Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, Orbital and Boeing. But SpaceX is the first ready to try.
Musk has no illusions. A lot can go wrong. When Dragon first gets to the station it will make a wide loop around the ISS. “If something doesn’t look right during that initial loop then we’ll have to pause, retreat Dragon to a safe distance, do some analysis and figure out if we can sort out the problem and go for a docking,” he says.
Because you can’t simulate zero gravity on earth, many of the calculations are done by computer. “A lot of what we’ve done is based on simulations. Now if there’s an error in our simulations, unfortunately we’ll discover that in orbit,” Musk says.
With degrees in both business and physics, Musk admits he’s hands on. During the mission he’ll be in the SpaceX control room in Hawthorne, California, right beside his team. He says he knows every inch of the spacecraft. As the head man Musk says any decision to proceed or abort the mission rests with him. “The way it works is if a problem occurs we kind of get together as a team, figure out what the right decision is. Ultimately, I bear responsibility for the decision, so I need to make the decision.”
If Dragon is successful it won’t arrive at the station empty handed. The spacecraft is carrying about 1,100 pounds of supplies from meals to a laptop and batteries. He’s not sure, but Musk says there may be some underwear packed in there, too.