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In a new space race, the Dragon, and Musk, have landed

May 31, 2012|By Dan Turner
  • SpaceX founder Elon Musks stands in front of the Dragon capsule, which returned to Earth on Thursday after nine days in space.
SpaceX founder Elon Musks stands in front of the Dragon capsule, which returned… (Los Angeles Times )

Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has been compared to Tony Stark, Marvel Comics' billionaire inventor who dons a high-tech suit of armor to become Iron Man (Musk actually had a cameo in "Iron Man 2," and the SpaceX factory was used as a set for the film). But there's a far less super-powered and slightly less sane figure from real life that he resembles more: Howard Hughes.

Hughes, a visionary who helped build Southern California's aerospace industry from scratch, was a pioneer in an era when entrepreneurs were figuring out how to make air travel, heretofore the province of military air forces, hobbyists and Lindbergh-like daredevils, commercially viable. Musk's SpaceX is doing very much the same thing, only in space. And its remarkable success this week propels SpaceX's place in the public imagination from the company that failed to shoot James "Scotty" Doohan's ashes beyond Earth's orbit into a prime player in the commercial space race, a maker of history and, one can hope, a catalyst for the rebirth of Southern California's once-thriving aerospace industry.

When SpaceX's Dragon capsule splashed down Thursday morning in the Pacific Ocean, it marked the completion of the first privately operated mission to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, a job previously handled by NASA's fleet of now-retired space shuttles. This was more than just a technological feat; it was a political coup for advocates of reducing NASA's role in near-Earth missions so it can concentrate on exploring deeper into space, a proposal resisted not only by members of Congress -- who fear this shift will cost jobs at NASA facilities in their districts -- but by astronauts and other space experts who don't think the private sector is up to the task. SpaceX has just proved them resoundingly wrong.

Pause for a minute to consider how remarkable this accomplishment was. After 17 months of planning, SpaceX launched an unmanned rocket to send the Dragon into space, where it approached the space station -- cruising at 17,500 miles per hour as it orbits the planet -- and, without a pilot, maneuvered close enough to be grabbed by the station's robotic arm. From there, it was up to astronauts on the station to dock the craft and unload its 1,000-pound payload of food, clothing and other supplies. The Dragon deployed its parachutes as it reentered the atmosphere and appears to have made a perfect touchdown.

And all this cost taxpayers a fraction of what it would for NASA to do the job. According to the Wall Street Journal, each shuttle mission cost the agency roughly $1 billion. SpaceX, meanwhile, has a contract with NASA to perform 12 cargo flights (this first one was a test run and doesn't count) to the space station for $1.6 billion -- a savings of $10.4 billion (that's not counting the $400 million or so in seed money that NASA has invested into SpaceX's cargo operations, so we'll make it an even $10 billion).

SpaceX isn't the only player in this game. Boeing Co. is getting into the commercial space business, and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos aims to out-Stark Musk by founding his own space start-up, Blue Origin. SpaceX's most serious competitor, meanwhile, is a company in Dulles, Va., calledOrbital Sciences Corp., which also has a big cargo contract with NASA and is testing its own rocket later this year. None of them are as far advanced as SpaceX, though, because their founders didn't start as early as Musk, who was among the first to see the potential of private space operations.

SpaceX, which employs 1,800 people, is located in a Hawthorne factory where Boeing once made fuselages for 747s, signaling a rebirth for an industry devastated by consolidation in the 1990s. The aerospace house that Hughes built is never likely to fully recover, but it's encouraging that California can still attract and nurture visionaries with the means to make their outrageous sci-fi fantasies real.

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