Can Elon Do It Alone?

Entrepreneurs have created a whole new space race—a race that, if you believe the media, is putting the government’s space efforts to shame. A typical headline, from Inc. magazine, reads: “These Space Entrepreneurs Are Leaving NASA in the Dust.”


Take Elon Musk's SpaceX. While we all rightly celebrate SpaceX’s innovative entrepreneurship, the company’s primary role is that of government contractor. Musk sank a total of $100 million of his own money into the company. In 2006, NASA awarded it a $278 million contract to develop technology for servicing the International Space Station; an additional agreement raised the total to $396 million. But the contract stipulated that the rockets and spacecraft actually had to work, and the Falcon’s first three launches failed.

Meanwhile, SpaceX was spending $4 million a month on unproven technology. By 2008, the company was not only in trouble; it was threatening to bring down Musk’s other ventures: the Tesla electric car and SolarCity, a company that makes solar power systems along with charging stations for electric cars. Once again, NASA came through with a boost, awarding SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to ferry supplies to the International Space Station. NASA orders to date have totaled $3 billion—30 times Musk’s personal investment in SpaceX.

That “dust” SpaceX left NASA in? For Elon Musk, it constituted pure pay dirt. The company now seems financially stable, sending rockets up at an average of one a month, carrying payloads for both private industry and government with its Falcon 9 rocket—often from the Vandenberg Air Force Base.