SA-born Musk’s dream soars into space

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iol scitech may 7 Elon Musk

AFP

File photo: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiling the Falcon Heavy rocket at the National Press Club in Washington.

Mark Shuttleworth may have been the first South African to travel beyond our Earthly bounds, and now a Pretoria-born man may be responsible for making space flights a commercial reality.

Elon Musk, the billionaire businessman who left for the US after matriculating from Pretoria Boys High School, on Tuesday launched his own spacecraft to deliver cargo to an international space station.

Watching the rocket rise from the launch pad was an “extremely intense moment” for him.

“Every bit of adrenalin in my body released at that point,” he told reporters after the flawless launch, which followed an attempt on Saturday that was scrapped at the last second when computers detected high pressure in the central engine of the Falcon 9.

This marks the first time a privately funded and crafted space shuttle has been sent to the low- orbiting International Space Station (ISS) that is used as a staging base for future missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Musk’s California-based conglomerate, SpaceX, is the first of several US companies trying to send its own spacecraft to the ISS. The reason for the new space race? To help restore the US’s access to space for human travellers by 2015.

On Tuesday, the first test flight of Musk’s Falcon 9 rocket was deemed a rousing success, and is expected to arrive at the station within days, delivering half a ton of provisions to the ISS’s crew.

His 40 000 Twitter followers yesterday heard of the success: “Falcon flew perfectly!!”

In an interview with author Michael Belfiore for his book Rocketeers, Musk spoke of why he left SA to pursue his dreams, saying he left his Pretoria home in 1988 in part because of the compulsory military service in SA at the time.

“I don’t have an issue with serving in the military per se, but serving in the South African army suppressing black people just didn’t seem like a really good way to spend time.” He wanted to move to the US, “where great things are possible”.

Musk spoke of three areas or “important problems that would most affect the future of humanity”, identifying them as: the internet, clean energy and space.

Tuesday’s mission may be an unmanned test flight, but the mission may lead to commercial spaceships carrying astronauts to and from other space stations in the next five years. And eventually, space tourism for those able to afford it.

SpaceX successfully test launched the Falcon 9 two years ago, and made history when it became the first non-government based company to send a spacecraft into orbit and back.

The capsule, which lies at the top of the Falcon rockets, known as the Dragon, was built to carry cargo and up to seven crew members on their journeys.

Until yesterday, only the space agencies of Russia, Japan and Europe were able to send ships to the ISS.

SpaceX has said previously that its goal is to cut down the heft price Nasa pays Russia to send US astronauts into space – a whopping $63 million (R525m).

Despite an initial failure to launch last week, the current success of Tuesday’s launch could mean a massive contract with the US government to become the official “space bus” for astronauts.

As one of the CEOs of global e-commerce corporation PayPal, and the CEO of electric car company Tesla Motors, space seems to be Musk’s current focus.

The billionaire in a recent interview declared that he would be responsible for putting the first man on Mars in the next decade.

The 40-year-old’s corporate exploits have also caught Hollywood’s eye. In an article written for Time magazine, director Jon Favreau (director of Iron Man) praised Musk for his contributions to rocket science, and said he based his Iron Man character Tony Stark on the South African.

Favreau described Musk as “a paragon of enthusiasm, good humour and curiosity – a Renaissance man in an era that needs him”. - The Star

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