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Sa-born Elon Musk had his head in the clouds yesterday as his company’s Falcon 9 rocket safely entered orbit, signalling that a commercial outfit can play a meaningful role in space travel.
Educated at Pretoria Boys’ High, multimillionaire Musk emigrated to Canada in his late teens in 1989 and studied in the US.
He co-founded PayPal, but now his emphasis with his company SpaceX is on the space game.
The elated owner of SpaceX was applauded at company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, when orbit was attained.
The rocket was launched at 9.44am SA time yesterday.
SpaceX is the first of several US competitors to try sending spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) with the goal of restoring US access to space for humans by 2015.
“We are really at the dawn of a new era of space exploration, one where there is a much bigger role for commercial space companies,” Musk said, likening the space effort to the rise of the internet in the mid-1990s.
“The internet was created as a government endeavour but then the introduction of commercial companies really accelerated its growth and made it accessible to the mainstream,” he added. “I think we are actually at that stage and the success of this mission – even what we have seen thus far – I think bodes well for that new stage of space exploration.”
The company successfully test-launched its Falcon 9 rocket in June 2010, then made history with its Dragon launch in that December, becoming the first commercial outfit to send a spacecraft into orbit and back. Its reusable Dragon capsule has been built to carry cargo and up to seven crew members.
The test flight of the Dragon space capsule, which launched atop the Falcon 9 rocket, aims to show that commercial industry can restore US access to the ISS after Nasa retired its space shuttle fleet last year. The mission is set to include a fly-by and berthing with the station in the next three days, before the capsule returns to Earth at the end of this month.
Speaking of the launch, Musk said:
“Every bit of adrenalin in my body released at that point.”
The apparently flawless launch followed an attempt on Saturday that was scrubbed at the last second when computers detected high pressure in the central engine of the Falcon 9. A faulty check valve was detected and repaired on the same day.
No humans are travelling aboard the Dragon, but six astronauts are already at the $100 billion (R824bn) space lab to help the capsule latch on, to unload supplies and then restock the capsule with cargo to take back to earth.
On May 31, the Dragon is to detach from the station and land in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California.
Nasa administrator Charles Bolden congratulated SpaceX for opening “a new era in exploration”.
“We’re handing off to the private sector our transportation to the ISS so that Nasa can focus on what we do best – exploring even deeper into our solar system, with missions to an asteroid and Mars on the horizon.
“Until now, only the space agencies of Russia, Japan and Europe have sent supply ships to the ISS. The three-decade US shuttle programme, which ferried astronauts and cargo, ended in 2011, leaving Russia as the sole taxi until private industry came to the party.”
SpaceX and a handful of other companies are being given seed money by Nasa. – Sapa-AFP