By the time Howard Hughes built his H-4 Hercules flying boat, also known as the ‘Spruce Goose’, he was an engineering prodigy, having leveraged a fortune and innovated radios, aviation and other technological fields to become one of the world’s richest people. The Spruce Goose, a megaplane the scale of which had never before been seen, enthralled the public. Despite Hughes’ credentials, they still wondered, would it ever take off?
As Elon Musk stood beside his SpaceX Dragon capsule this week, and told crowds his plans to send two civilians to the moon in 2018, his likeness to Hughes was striking. Good-looking and suave, Musk has an ability to soothe audiences, and to convince them he knows how to get things done.
It’s an especially vital trait: In the past few years Musk and his charges have unveiled electric cars, magnetic tube-trains, solar roof tiles and a megabattery in the Nevada desert. When announcing such zealous goals, panache goes a long way.
Musk’s latest endeavor, however, is literally a moonshot. SpaceX’s passengers will, Musk said on Monday, “travel faster and further into the solar system than any before them.” Whatever Musk lacks, it is not hyperbole.
“Like the Apollo astronauts before them,” he added, “these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration.”
The journey will carry Musk’s tourists on a weeklong, 400,000-mile trip around the moon. Their identities are unknown, apart from the fact they’re “nobody from Hollywood,” Musk said. Neither would he say how much they have paid for the experience–but admitted it was a “significant amount of money”.
NASA has not sent anyone to the moon since 1972. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic announced that it too would send civilians into space many years ago. But the company’s space vehicle was destroyed in a crash in 2014. No-one knows when it will be operational again.
What is perhaps the most striking aspect of Musk’s plan is its speed: SpaceX will fly late 2018, in hardware that has never flown. Its first flight to the International Space Station (ISS) will be carried out next spring. That is staggering, even for Musk–though it should be added that SpaceX has missed deadlines before.
SpaceX also marks an important shift between the public and private spheres of space travel. NASA, America’s space agency, has announced it will send people on its new crew capsule, Orion, carried by the Space Launch System rocket.
Both will fly at similar times. But SpaceX will cost several hundreds of millions less to build, and at a minimal public cost: whether the current President will be enamored enough to continue backing NASA, when he is busy ploughing money into the military and Mexico wall, is a big question hanging over the agency’s home in Houston.
Musk, realizing this, has pushed back against criticism of NASA, tweeting recently that “SpaceX could not do this without NASA.” But SpaceX appears to mark a significant turning point for the space race.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company has also been expanding its activity. Red Herring witnessed Israel’s own public-private space program firsthand a fortnight ago at the OurCrowd Summit in Jerusalem.
The Middle Eastern nation’s combination of private business innovation and public spending looks to be a good model for future projects. After all, Eran Privman, CEO of Space.Il, said at the show: “generally it’s a wider issue than space. It’s satellites, avionics and all the tech around.”
Howard Hughes got the Spruce Goose off the ground in November 1947, albeit for just a few minutes and around a mile. It never flew again. Hughes himself was, by then, a germaphobic recluse, and the megaplane was, his critics announced, the end of his innovative spree.
The same cannot be said of Musk. The Tesla chief has become more and more emboldened in his plans to conquer the world of tech–and we in the media, and the public, lap up every moment.
Musk is today’s entrepreneurial superhero, capable of spanning the business, technology, environmental and innovation fields at once. SpaceX is yet more evidence of his desire to keep pushing boundaries. Whether those boundaries reach the moon, however, is a question we’ll be asking until 2018.