Innovation

Why Elon Musk's SpaceX is even cooler than Tesla

Environmentally friendly cars are important, but Elon Musk's SpaceX may have an even bigger impact on our lives.

Space

Tesla is cool. Elon Musk's electric car company continues to pump out beautiful, high performance cars that Silicon Valley and, increasingly, the world lusts after.

But as cool as Tesla is, SpaceX, Elon Musk's other company, is even cooler... and much more important.

Though it's easy to relegate SpaceX and its ilk to silly whims of billionaire Space Invaders fans, such a view is short-sighted, as Ashlee Vance's excellent Elon Musk biography uncovers. As "companies turn to space for television, internet, radio, weather, navigation, and imaging services," high-tech and other industries are going to need a low-cost, high-quality commercial space company.

We're going to need SpaceX.

A big, bloated market

It's not that the US doesn't have home-grown aerospace giants. We do. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital Sciences all originated here, not to mention Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.

The problem with each of these, however, is that SpaceX trounces them "on price by a ridiculous margin." Blue Origin excepted, our traditional aerospace companies have become addicted to government funds. This cash is dispensed in the billions and has led to gargantuan piles of waste.

Also of concern, "Where these competitors rely on Russian and other foreign suppliers, SpaceX makes all of its machines from scratch in the United States." This might seem like an antiquated concern, but we've already had periods of time when Russia's government intervened to block sales of its (outdated) technology to US companies. Oh, and while SpaceX's current cost is $60 million per satellite launch, Russia charges the US $70 million per passenger to ferry them to the International Space Station.

Today, the cheapest places to get access to a satellite (outside SpaceX) are China and Russia, hardly the most ideal of business partners for US (or European) companies. To make access to space affordable, predictable, and safe, the industry is starting to turn to SpaceX.

Making space competitive

It couldn't come at a more opportune time. The total market for satellites, related services, and the rocket launches has more than tripled in the past few years, largely because the need for satellite access has exploded:

"The machines in space supply the fabric of modern life, and they're going to become more capable and interesting at a rapid pace. A whole new breed of satellite makers has just appeared on the scene with the ability to answer Google-like queries about our planet.

"These satellites can zoom in on Iowa and determine when cornfields are at peak yields and ready to harvest, and they can count cars in Wal-Mart parking lots throughout California to calculate shopping demand during the holiday season.

"The start-ups making these types of innovative machines must often turn to the Russians to get them into space, but SpaceX intends to change that."

To make space affordable for governments and startups alike, "Musk's goal is to use manufacturing breakthroughs and launchpad advances to create a drastic drop in the cost of getting things to space." He's already done this, delivering commercial space access for a fraction of his competitors' cost.

And somehow he does it in style. "While the rest of the aerospace industry has been content to keep sending what look like relics from the 1960s into space, SpaceX has made a point of doing just the opposite. Its reusable rockets and reusable spaceships look like true twenty-first-century machines."

Some of the improvements Musk has made are more pedestrian.

For example, SpaceX opts to use readily available consumer technology whenever possible, rather than building its own Super-Duper Industrial Grade products. Using a commercial radio, for example, sends prices "dropping from between $50,000 to $100,000 for the industrial-grade equipment used by aerospace companies to $5,000 for SpaceX's unit."

Now, multiply those cost savings across hundreds of areas, and you get a sense for how SpaceX has managed to lower costs even while keeping quality high.

Space at a price we can afford

Today, a Falcon 9 launch costs $60 million. While dramatically lower than any of its competitors, Musk wants to push this price even lower. Through economies of scale and technological innovation, SpaceX believes it can get the price closer to $20 million per launch.

As the price drops, the ranks of companies and countries that can afford access to space will increase. As one SpaceX employee tells Vance, "A number of new nations [are] showing interest in launches, eyeing communications technology as essential to growing their economies and leveling their status with developed nations. Cheaper flights [will] help SpaceX take the majority of the business from that new customer set."

I want to drive a Tesla Model X. While I might tell myself it's so that I can ease my impact on the environment during my commute to and from work each day, the reality is that I know it will be incredible. I've driven two different versions of the Model S, and it's a religious experience.

But self interest aside, Tesla will make a dent on society's environmental impact.

SpaceX won't. Yes, it may end up helping us to colonize Mars, as Musk has set as its goal—but in the near term, it will help expand access to satellite technology, something that companies and countries, big and small, increasingly need to thrive. This won't impact our carbon footprint, but it should have a major impact on our economies.

For this reason, as important as Tesla will be, SpaceX may well be even more important.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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