Elon Musk made his mark in the business world when he founded PayPal, the highly successful internet payment platform, in 1998. Musk, however, has much bigger plans for the future with SpaceX, a company he founded in 2002. After being launched into orbit by the company’s Falcon rocket, its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vehicle to rendezvous with the International Space Station. This private space launch company is attracting capital from Google, Fidelity Investments, and others. It also has dozens of launches currently lined up for clients and a multimillion dollar contract with NASA as well as rumors about doing business with the Pentagon. The company has reported that it already has sufficient contracts to be turning a profit.
Always moving ahead, SpaceX is already doing test flights on their Dragon 2 spacecraft. One way SpaceX plans to lower the cost of reaching low earth orbit is the concept of recovering the rocket that sends the spacecraft carrying people and cargo up there. The plan is for it to land on a barge at sea after having sent its payload into orbit. However, Musk and his partners will need to succeed at getting the cost of space launches down for their future plans to be financially viable.
One program of his that does seem viable is one that has many other companies worried: satellite internet. Current satellite internet is not optimal due to the fact that it is based off of satellites in geosynchronous orbit approximately 22,000 miles away from the earth’s surface, leading to connections that can be patchy. Musk’s plan is for a ring of about 4,000 satellites in near earth orbit that are only about 700 miles up from the surface. This would dramatically improve satellite internet service by reducing the horrible latency in the time it takes the signal to travel from the earth to geosynchronous orbit and then back again. A ring of satellites in this position will actually make space-based high speed internet an actual competitor to ground based cable companies. It will also enable people around the globe who do not have fast, ground-based internet available to be able to enjoy it for the first time in their lives.
Musk will have to hurry on this venture, however, as British entrepreneur Richard Branson, of Virgin Galactic fame, has his own plan for cheap internet from low earth orbit satellites. Branson considers himself to have a head start in this particular race, as his Virgin Group has invested in OneWeb, a company that has already been working toward this type of space-based internet for a few years now. Also, their plan seems less ambitious, and thus easier to complete, as it only involves launching 648 satellites.
Elon Musk has his sights set higher than low earth orbit. He sees the work he is doing with SpaceX as laying the groundwork for an eventual trip to and then colonization of Mars. Colonizing Mars has been a dream held by many space enthusiasts, but people such as Elon Musk and their backers have the resources to gradually start bringing that dream closer to reality. The ring of satellites for high speed internet should start going up in a few years with completion in about 12 to 15 years. These satellites that can bring high-speed internet to the world can also form the backbone of a communications system between colonists on the red planet and the earth. Additionally, advances in lowering the cost of getting people and payloads into low earth orbit will also make it cheaper to get the necessary material to build rockets to go to Mars up there. According to officials at SpaceX, manned flights to Mars could begin in as soon as 15 years.
Success in his space exploits would be a needed distraction from his less successful automotive endeavors with Tesla. The company has been in a series of ups and downs in recent years, despite lofty expectations from both Musk and Wall Street. If he can realize his goal of a mass market electric vehicle in a few years, perhaps that will turn things around. Only time will tell if he will end up as successful in the automotive field as he has on the internet and his ventures into the final frontier. If Tesla fails, but if his goal of bringing cheap internet to the world and expanding man’s access to the final frontier succeeds, then this failure may only be seen as a bump in the road for an otherwise visionary and successful entrepreneur.
Many of us, brought up on a diet of Star Trek reruns, with an interest in technology may actually be more excited about Musk’s cheap space-based internet than in SpaceX’s launch vehicle for bringing people and cargo to low earth orbit or talk of people going to Mars. Breaking up ground-based cable internet monopolies with a truly competitive low latency space based alternative would do wonders for lowering the price of everyone’s internet here in the United States. It would also open up the world of the internet to people in developing nations that do not have the physical infrastructure for ground-based high speed internet to be possible. Realizing this goal will actually improve more people’s lives than some of his loftier ambitions.
Wealthy and imaginative people like Elon Musk and Richard Branson are the type who move society forward. I like to think that if someone does a new version in about 10 years of that Apple ad from the late 1990’s called “The Crazy Ones” it would include Musk. The ad advanced the concept that only those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world actually do. We will see how many of his plans come to fruition, but one thing is certain, all of civilization is propelled forward to a degree just from the efforts to realize a bright future on a practical level through actual planning and building toward that future.