What does the advancement of technology sound like? If you live anywhere near the SpaceX rocket development test site in McGregor, you know it can be window-rattlingly loud.
SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies, is competing to be the first commercial company to launch U.S. astronauts into space. If all goes as planned, the number and force of rocket engine tests will increase significantly this year. With every test, the company appears closer to one day taking astronauts into space and possibly sending spacecraft to other realms.
The California-based company is building a striking new in-ground facility in McGregor. SpaceX touts that engines for the world’s most powerful rocket will be tested there. The work at this former World War II bomb-making facility, known as “Area L,” could put Central Texas in the forefront of advances in space travel.
The facility is the brainchild of visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk, a tenacious businessman who seems to know no bounds.
Musk, a 40-year-old billionaire, co-founded PayPal, the world’s leading Internet payment system. He is CEO and chief technology officer of SpaceX, and he co-founded Tesla Motors, which produces electric vehicles. He also is the largest shareholder of SolarCity, which creates solar power systems.
Waco Today sat down for an exclusive interview with Musk while he was in McGregor for a SpaceX company picnic in November. Then he signed a long-term economic deal with the city that promises a $60 million investment in the facility and the addition of dozens of well-paying jobs. “I like the spirit of Texas,” he says.
Musk talked openly about the company’s missions and goals, his expectations and the race to be the first commercial U.S. company to take astronauts into low-earth orbit and to the International Space Station in this post-space shuttle era.
He revealed stunning technological advances that SpaceX is creating and testing in Central Texas. And he might shock some people with his frank desire to build a pod on Mars for human habitation.
On a barren stretch of land four miles west of McGregor High School, SpaceX tests every one of its rocket engines. To some, it might seem an unlikely location. But since the NASA space shuttle program was scrapped last summer, it’s now seen as a nucleus of hope for future U.S. space travel.
The site was a bomb manufacturing plant during World War II and later the home of Rocketdyne and Beal Aerospace. In 2003, SpaceX moved in and since has invested $50 million in renovations.
What started with three employees and 256 acres has grown to more than 140 employees and 631 acres and includes several new buildings, outposts and testing pads.
“Our headquarters are technically in Hawthorne, Calif., but I tell folks if they really want to see the exciting stuff, they should come to Texas,” said Musk, seated in a conference room in a renovated bunker where engineers monitor rocket tests via computer. “That’s where we light the fires and where most of our advanced engines are.”
Among the reasons for locating in western McLennan County, he said, are the wide-open spaces and Texans’ can-do attitude.
“Probably more than any other state, Texans believe in free enterprise,” said Musk, who was born and reared in South Africa and moved to Canada at age 17 before studying at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. “There’s a sense of optimism and a feeling that great things can be accomplished.”
While the U.S. and many countries are suffering through a lingering recession, SpaceX seems to be moving forward at full force.
The company has secured a $1.6 billion government cargo contract to operate 12 flights to the International Space Station via its Dragon spacecraft. The first flight, which will carry water and other items, is scheduled for Feb. 7. SpaceX is expected to be the first private U.S. company to send a spacecraft to berth at the ISS. That sets it well ahead of any competitors and positions it as the forerunner for potentially carrying U.S. astronauts into low-earth orbit as early as 2014.
Pushing the envelope
But Musk admits that SpaceX also has suffered in this economy — particularly after three failed attempts to launch a rocket into orbit prior to success in 2010. The company persevered, he said, by pushing the envelope on innovation and design and by having hands-on engineers who not only theorize, but roll up their sleeves and create.
“We’re really looking for people with exceptional engineering ability and people who like to be hands-on and not too academic, because we’re trying to get real things done,” he said. “We’re not trying to publish papers. We’re doing hard-core engineering and pushing the state-of-the-art in rocket technology.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who also attended the SpaceX picnic in McGregor and was given a private tour of the test site, said it’s that type of spirit that ultimately will help to lift the U.S. economy.
“Those who believe in ingenuity and free enterprise and those who take risks and work hard and make sacrifices can reap the rewards and grow our economy and create jobs in the process,” Cornyn told a cheering crowd of 2,000 minutes before a live test of a Merlin 1C rocket engine. “I’m so delighted to see what Elon and his company are doing here in McGregor, Texas. Because competition is what this is all about and that includes quality and price and making things cheaper obviously for taxpayers when it comes to exploring the frontiers of space.”
That doesn’t make SpaceX’s mission any easier. This is rocket science, after all. It’s tricky stuff, and it’s costly. Every test, every component and every employee here is worth a bundle. Musk admitted that from 2007 through 2009, he was fearful that SpaceX might not make it.
He personally has invested $100 million in the company since founding it. He also has invested $70 million into Tesla Motors and $10 million into SolarCity. “Then I found myself borrowing money from friends to pay the rent,” he joked, although somewhat seriously. “But I believe strongly that if I’m not prepared to put my own money into something, then I shouldn’t ask investors to do the same.”
It’s paid off in other ways, as well.
Musk’s employees seem fiercely loyal to him and to the SpaceX mission. Most are 20-somethings with advanced college degrees who speak in a highly technical vernacular. They think big and dream big. And they reap the rewards.
For instance, when SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft was launched on Dec. 8, 2010, and became the first commercial space flight to orbit Earth and safely return, several of the McGregor employees were selected to retrieve the 12-foot-wide vessel off the coast of California. Six months earlier, SpaceX had successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket into low-earth orbit. That, Musk said, was pivotal for the company and put it on a trajectory for success.
“That definitely was one of the brightest moments,” he said. “2010 was great. 2011 has been even better, and I think we’re headed toward an awesome 2012.”
Musk has a charismatic charm. He is easy to approach and has great rapport with his employees. They light up when he enters a room, and in turn, he easily engages them and asks for their opinions and feedback, they say.
Musk says he often walks through the Hawthorne plant where many parts are manufactured. “I try to be pretty hands-on and I believe in really understanding the details of things,” he said. “I tend to meet with pretty big groups — not just VPs — a wide range of engineers and production folks and business folks. I like to walk around the factory a lot. It’s an idea that Hewlett-Packard established — management by walking around.”
The final stage of manufacturing and assembly takes place in McGregor, meaning high-caliber employees are selected for these key operations. Much research and development also is done in McGregor.
“That’s why I prefer to refer to this as a rocket development site, not just a test site, because we really do a lot of the development activity here,” he said.
This year, Musk promises exciting new rocket tests at the McGregor plant that will be unlike anything before. Adjacent land that SpaceX secured last spring will be excavated for an in-ground testing facility for its newest rocket, the Falcon Heavy. He says it will be the most powerful rocket in the world.
Testing will begin this spring on the Merlin 1D engine, which will power the Falcon Heavy. To fire all 27 engines at the same time, which is required to lift the massive rocket, a test stand will be built deep into the earth.
“We are, in fact, looking at digging a very deep flame trench so that instead of firing Falcon Heavy engines on elevated test stands, they fire into the ground, reducing noise levels,” said Kirstin Brost Grantham, SpaceX spokeswoman.
The new test stand will be connected to the tallest water tower in America. The tower will be 280 feet high and hold 500,000 gallons of water that can be emptied in less than 90 seconds via 6-foot-wide tubes. Rocket engine tests require water to buffer sound; a test of this magnitude will require a lot of water to minimize the noise.
SpaceX hopes to launch the Falcon Heavy in 2013. Once operational, it should be capable of hauling 53 tons into orbit and could significantly help fortify the International Space Station with much-needed goods.
Once an escape system is approved for the Dragon spacecraft, Musk expects SpaceX to get approval to carry U.S. astronauts to the space station. That could be a significant savings for taxpayers. The United States currently pays Russia about $60 million per ride on its Soyuz capsule to the ISS. Musk has promised Congress that SpaceX will do it for $20 million for a seven-person crew at four missions per year.
He said it will be safer because the SpaceX escape system will allow the Dragon spacecraft to detach from the rocket all the way to orbit should the need arise. The Soyuz has detachment capabilities for the crew only through the first minute of launch, he said.
The Dragon also is expected to be equipped with side thrusters that could enable surface landings using propulsion and no parachutes. “We really are advancing the state of the art,” Musk said.
Sights set higher
Nevertheless, spaceflight remains dangerous. “It is risky, and people must bear that in mind,” he said. “There will be failures, particularly in the beginning as we are figuring out the design, and that’s why we don’t want to carry any people until it is proven in flight.”
Ultimately, Musk has his sights set higher — and farther.
“Our ultimate goal is to develop the technology to allow the establishment of a base on Mars,” he said.
He envisions a pod where people can live on the Red Planet and roam the surface in electric vehicles like the kind made at Tesla Motors. He’s serious about getting there during his lifetime.
“We want to make it so that if somebody wanted to move to Mars, they could do so,” he said. “I’m not expecting this to happen tomorrow, to be clear. But I think that would be an amazing thing.”
What kind of reaction does he typically get to that goal? “They think that sounds like a nice idea, but that I must be thinking this is 100 years from now or that it’s a cool aspiration, but it couldn’t be real,” he said, laughing. “But I’m serious.”
Before venturing to Mars, Musk promises SpaceX will have “some exciting surprises down the road” and will keep growing year after year.
He is cautiously mum on specifics, saying, “As long as what you are doing doesn’t violate a law of physics, then it’s possible.”