Christopher Columbus ventured into the high seas with a large sailboat built by him in the 1490s and ended up in the new continent of America. This event changed the history of humankind. Similarly, Elon Musk has opened up a new chapter in space exploration by aiming at the colonisation of Mars in a spaceship being built by him.
He is a legendary figure in the modern space programme and has surpassed even people like Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova and Wernher von Braun, the architect of the Apollo rocket that helped Neil Armstrong land on the moon. Musk has set a new vision for space travel and is the first to demonstrate a recoverable and reusable launch system—Falcon 9. He had also developed Dragon, a unique reusable manned capsule for human travel to space stations and return safely.
In May, SpaceX achieved a new milestone, with Dragon carrying two astronauts to the space station on its maiden flight. The SpaceX project conceived by a young engineer and entrepreneur in 2002 has fructified. This was the first human space flight system developed by a private institution. The US had been using the space shuttle developed for human travel to space. Due to the failures encountered and high cost of maintenance, the space shuttle was decommissioned and the only means of sending cargo and men to the space station was Russia’s Soyuz. Musk saw an opportunity and stretched his imagination to conceive a unique transportation system for space travel.
His plan in the early 2000s was really big, targeting nearly 20 tons to be taken to Mars to set up a human settlement there. This was great vision and he set up a design, development and manufacturing team under the banner of SpaceX, utilising all his life savings. In the meantime, NASA was on the lookout for a replacement for the shuttle. Against several competitive bids, Musk emerged as the winner with a target of taking cargo and humans to the space station.
Nearly 15 years of hard work by thousands of engineers and technicians was responsible for the successful demonstration of the manned SpaceX flight in 2020. For the development of rocket systems, Musk considered several options. It was the time when Russia was dismantling a large number of missiles and they offered these rocket systems to be used for satellite launches. A two-year-long negotiation with Russian manufacturers did not succeed due to the high price they demanded.
Finally, Musk took a decision that the development rocket system would be done by the company directly. Reviewing various high thrust rockets earlier developed in the US, he selected an engine used in the Apollo Mission. The design was fine-tuned and the development of a semi-cryogenic engine named Merlin was taken up by SpaceX. This engine that uses liquid oxygen and kerosene, with 85 tons of thrust, has become the workhorse for the Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Falcon heavy-lift launch vehicles. Initially there were several failures during static tests and in the flight of Falcon 1.
Musk was not put off by such failures and his perseverance finally succeeded in 2012, with a heavy payload carried into Earth orbit. Instead of spending huge resources on a heavy satellite for a test flight, he used a Tesla electric car designed and developed by him as the payload. This was a symbolic achievement and subsequently, there were nine successful flights. SpaceX then started sending cargo flights to the space station.
Falcon 9 can take up to 22 tons to low Earth orbit and is planned to be used for carrying multiple satellites to different orbits, and cargo and manned missions to space stations, etc. SpaceX is planning to develop a Falcon heavy lift capable of carrying 64 tons payload, equivalent to a fully loaded 747 aircraft, to low Earth orbit. Its booster stage is realised by strapping two of Falcon 9’s core stages. Incidentally this is what we did in ASLV in the early 80s to enhance the payload capability of SLV3 from 50 kg to 150 kg.
We strapped two of the first stages of SLV3 to the core stage. The beauty of the Falcon system is that it is configured with multiple Merlin engines, nine in Falcon 9 and 27 in Falcon heavy lift. This concept enables the engines to be produced as in an automobile assembly line, thus ensuring high reliability.
The success of Musk in these space ventures is due to long-term vision and perseverance. Further, he had taken the approach of selecting the technology and people with proven track record. He has assembled a mix of fresh talent and highly experienced people from well-established space companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin as well as from NASA.
As per his analysis, the cost of raw materials for space missions is only around 10% and the rest is the value addition for design, manufacture, testing and integration. He has planned an integrated facility under one roof to carry out all these activities. This had resulted in savings of nearly 60% of mission cost. Looking back, the ISRO management was also similar. A highly qualified team for design testing and launch was created within various ISRO centres and only routine manufacturing jobs were given to industries. All specialised facilities were created by ISRO itself.
The expertise and facilities were utilised for various programmes starting from PSLV to GSLV, INSAT and IRS spacecraft. This scheme has resulted in considerable savings in cost, resulting in ISRO providing cost-effective solutions for satellites and launch services not only for the country but also for foreign agencies. Comparing the launch cost of SpaceX with GSLV Mk 3, the latter is quite competitive at 60% of SpaceX’s.
With the adventurous journey into space and confidence in multidisciplinary engineering projects, Musk has initiated challenging programmes for other human needs. His work in artificial intelligence and the brain machine interface are futuristic and highly demanding. Similarly, his efforts in development of electric cars through Tesla is commendable. In all these ventures, the unique feature is that Musk is the chief designer, CEO and chairman of the company.
We should be proud of the system we are following for the last half a century in atomic energy and space. Our concept is similar in which the posts of chairman of the commission, secretary to government and CEO of the programme are vested with one technocrat. The only difference is funding is from the government. The life story of Musk is worth learning from. He was born in South Africa in a middle-class family. At the age of 12, he made a software package and sold it for a nominal price of around 500 dollars.
He absorbed many practical skills in handling various devices at an early age. Though he got selected for the PhD programme in materials science in Stanford, he left that course in a few days since he felt his talents were in technology development and business. He and his brother had jointly started a venture for providing computer-based services. During this period, he did not have adequate resources for a decent accommodation, slept in the office room itself and made use of the YMCA facility for daily chores.
His software package was sold to a company for a small price to initiate a tiny venture, which was again sold to a bigger company for around $20 million dollars. This can be called the forerunner to the PayTM software of today. With this money, he started his dream project of travelling to Mars to create an alternative habitat for humans if anything drastic happened to Earth. Today, SpaceX has become a global giant. Pursuing a career of his choice and having great vision and determination to achieve the goals even under extreme stress is the real mantra behind the unparalleled success of this 50-year-young Elon Musk.
G Madhavan Nair
Former ISRO chairman