Sometime over the next 12 hours, the SpaceX capsule Dragon will rendezvous with the International Space Station for the first time. It's streaming live on UStream and you can watch it here. To prepare you for this historic event, we've profiled the stellar career so far of SpaceX founder Elon Mask.
The rendezvous is the latest milestone in SpaceX's 10-year journey. The launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket earlier this week ushered in a new era of private spaceflight. The decade long build-up to that launch is testament to the long-term vision of its founder Elon Musk.
40-year old South African Elon Musk has had a stellar career. As well as SpaceX, he's founded or co-founded three other big idea ventures: the company which would become Paypal, electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors and a solar panel company called SolarCity. Retired serial entrepreneur Steve Blank recently named Musk as one of only 3 Silicon Valley entrepreneurs of this era to have created disruptive technology. The other two were Steve Jobs and Sebastian Thrun (who founded Google X, the research lab which has so far produced driverless cars and Google Glasses). So who is this man Elon Musk and what makes him tick?
Elon Musk's first company, which he co-founded with his brother Kimbal, was called Zip2 and sold online content publishing software to news organizations. It was acquired in 1999 by Compaq's AltaVista division, for $341 million. That same year Elon Musk co-founded X.com, an online financial services and e-mail payment company. Through an acquisition and Musk's leadership, in 2001 X.com turned into Paypal and was subsequently sold to eBay in October 2002 for US$1.5 billion.
SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) was the third company Musk founded. It began in June 2002 and Musk serves as both its CEO and CTO.
In the technology world, especially in Silicon Valley, we're used to hype and grand statements about the future. But nothing has ever compared to this 2008 statement by Elon Musk, about SpaceX:
"The Iraq war, the presidential election, and the debt crisis dominate today's headlines, but will amount to little more than a footnote in the long-term annals of history. To figure out what is truly significant, we need to take the longest possible view. There have only been about a half dozen genuinely important events in the four-billion-year saga of life on Earth: single-celled life, multicelled life, differentiation into plants and animals, movement of animals from water to land, and the advent of mammals and consciousness. The next big moment will be life becoming multiplanetary, an unprecedented adventure that would dramatically enhance the richness and diversity of our collective consciousness. It would also serve as a hedge against the myriad--and growing--threats to our survival. An asteroid or a supervolcano could certainly destroy us, but we also face risks the dinosaurs never saw: An engineered virus, nuclear war, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us. Sooner or later, we must expand life beyond our little blue mud ball--or go extinct."
From most other people, that kind of talk would seem ridiculous. But the thing is, Elon Musk is actually walking the talk. The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a reusable spacecraft called the Dragon, is the first stage in SpaceX's goal to transport cargo and people to outer space.
SpaceX was the first private enterprise to launch a rocket into space. It has the backing of NASA, which retired its own space shuttles earlier this year. NASA awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract in December 2008, for a total of 12 cargo flights. This week's launch wasn't part of that contract, but SpaceX plans to start delivering on it later this year.
The technology world needs big dreamers and Elon Musk is one of those. Check out the live streaming of Dragon's rendezvous with the International Space Station (see above) and remember that it took him 10 years to get to this point... and he's only just begun.