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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday, I'm Ira Flatow. Next up, a rocket last Sunday lifted off at Pacific gate toll of the Marshall Islands and it was bound for earth orbit. But there was something very different and significant about this rocket. It was designed and built privately without government assistance, and the rocket was named the Falcon 1, built and launched by the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation or SpaceX. It's a private company aiming to provide low-cost long services and making a business of selling - maybe selling a ride into space - cheaper and more reliably than the previous launched techniques. Last weekend's rocket launch was the first privately designed built system to make it, as I say into earth orbit, and it came after three failed attempts. Joining me now to talk about the launch and what comes next, is Elon Musk, he's the founder of SpaceX and the company's CEO and CTO and has a big smile on his face, I'm sure today. Welcome back to the program, Elon.

Mr. ELON MUSK (Founder, SpaceX): Thank you.

FLATOW: So this was the fourth try charm, huh?

Mr. MUSK: Well, I mean, I was just saying that this is a joke because - you know, the common idiomatic expression is third times the charm, but yeah, this was a great success for us and we're finally able to iron out one of the design-related issues with the vehicle. In our case it was particularly tricky because the entire vehicle was smashed from the ground up. So, you know, the first stage engine, second stage engine, all the structure, avionics kinds of control, was all done internally at SpaceX from a clean sheet. Typically launched vehicles have a long heritage and contain - what these - many of the components have flown before. But that was not the case now, in our vehicles. So it took a little longer to iron out the design issues because there were so many new things.

FLATOW: Well why not just license the design from someone else and build one of those rockets? Why start from the ground?

Mr. MUSK: Huh. Because their designs are not good. They're very expensive and they do not have any potential for usability. In the case of Falcon 1, it is designed to make a substantial cost breakthrough, and you know, a lot of cost is actually there right at the design point. If you designed something that is inherently expensive, it's going to be expensive. And that's typically how launch vehicles have been done in the past. So, you know, we had to really start from a clean sheet to make something that was low-cost to manufacture. And then also which was designed, at least in the case of first stage, to have the potential for reusability.

There's only one part that is useful once it becomes part of a world net of a shuttle. You know, the main tank is thrown away every time. But the reusable elements of a shuttle are so expensive that they're - it's actually more expensive, it's more costly than an expendable vehicle. The one of the big breaks we're having - hoping to achieve over time is a cost effective reusability, and so it really required that we start from a clean sheet.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, talking with Elon Musk. Are you saying that there are parts of the Spacecraft Falcon 1 that can be reused?

Mr. MUSK: Yeah, the first stage is designed with a potential for reusability. And unfortunately that - it did not survive reentry on this flight but we - we've got some good data to make improvements, and I think we've got a good shot of recovering it on flight five or six.

FLATOW: And how about - go ahead, I'm sorry.

Mr. MUSK: It's a pretty tough job recovering rocket stages which is why no one has ever succeeded in creating a fully reusable over launch vehicle. And why, in fact - why there's only one vehicle that's even partially reusable which is the shuttle. All the other launch vehicles in the world are expendable.

FLATOW: You have to know where you have to send the ship to know where it's going to splash down, I imagine pretty accurately.

Mr. MUSK: Yeah. It - yeah - to within - at a 20 mile distance here.

FLATOW: And then you got to fish it out of the water and make sure it doesn't sink.

Mr. MUSK: Yeah, the sinking is not an issue but because when the propellant is - when the tanks are empty, it has the about the density of an empty beer can. But it's - so it's not going to sink, it doesn't really leak or anything. That so - no dangerous sinking, but there is obviously a challenge of ensuring that it does not corrode when in seawater and that the electronics aren't damaged by seawater.

FLATOW: What do you foresee now as the first commercial use of your spacecraft?

Mr. MUSK: Well, we have quite a few launch contracts for both government and commercial satellites for Falcon 1. And an extra flight will carry a satellite for Malaysia, as well as some U.S. government secondary satellites and that is slated to launch in approximately March.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Mr. MUSK: And that satellite will be used for monitoring the - for natural disaster monitoring. So if there's a flood or tsunami or fires or whatever, the laser can direct aid to where it's needed. So that's the next satellite. And then, we have probably two more launches around - one around the middle of next year, one towards the end of next year. Probably both of those will be - U.S. government launches. And then maybe even like an additional launch, which would be a commercial launch for replenishment of the old com consolation(ph).

FLATOW: And there's going to be a time where the - in between space shuttles. We're not going to have a space shuttle to use, to service the space station, right? Can you fill that gap with your space vehicles?

Mr. MUSK: Yeah, absolutely. So, the shuttle is slated to retire in 2010. About two years ago, NASA held a competition for commercial servicing of the space station after the shuttle retires. SpaceX won that contract and that - at least one of the first three or four parts of the contract which are to take pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the space station and return it to earth. There's a fourth element to that contract which NASA has not yet exercised but we hope that they will. And we do things in the best interest of the country and I think, they will- which is to upgrade our Dragon Spacecraft to carry people.

So, in which case we would - we will not, you know, United States will not need to rely on the Soluse(ph) for carrying people to the space station between 2010 and 2015 or whenever the NASA, the next NASA developed system is available. So we're expecting to do our first demonstration flight of Falcon Nine Booster, which is our big booster, in our Dragon Spacecraft, which will go and dock with the space station next year. And then there are a couple of more demonstrations in 2010 at which point we'll go operational.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, talking with Elon Musk of the SpaceX Corporation. So you're saying that it's possible that you could create a little module where people could be sitting in and go back and forth to the space station? Or would they just stay with it while it's up there and keep docked with it at the space station?

Mr. MUSK: They would - we will be raising a video probably in a week or two, that will give people a very clear illustration of what is we're talking about. And there's already some information on our website, it's spacex.com. So, if people are curious to see what this we're referring to, you can see actual pictures of hardware on the SpaceX website. But essentially, it's sort of capsule like architecture and yeah, it takes up to seven astronauts to the space station. It can remain attached to the space station for six months or more if need be. Or it can immediately return to earth with the seven astronauts.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. And are you part of the Lunar X PRIZE competition? Say that's going - that the X price will be to put a payload, a working payload, on the moon.

Mr. MUSK: Well, I'm actually a trustee of the X PRIZE and helped fund the original sub-orbital X PRIZE that (unintelligible), and actually partly helped fund this PRIZE in that SpaceX has opted to do any launches for that X PRIZE at zero profit. So, we will do just at our cost, and that's just to help teams be able to do that mission. So we ourselves are not going to attempt to do the missions.

FLATOW: So that they can use one of your rockets to get to the moon.

Mr. MUSK: Yes.

FLATOW: Yeah. But they come up with the pay load themselves.

Mr. MUSK: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: How - what kind of time frame do you think all of these is going to happen? And are you going to be getting - if you can carry people to the space station, why not carry people into earth orbit and make a business out of that as a space tourist?

Mr. MUSK: Yeah, absolutely. I think we certainly will do trips to the space station with NASA astronauts and private astronauts and we will carry private astronauts to Earth orbit if they wish. And then there's also a potential for doing some interesting missions like a loop around the moon. We wouldn't have the capability to actually land on the moon, but potentially could sort of loop around the moon, and loop through the back side of the moon and maybe go even a little further than was the case with Apollo.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Crystal in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Crystal.

CRYSTAL (Caller): Hi, there.

FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.

CRYSTAL: Yeah. I was wondering how much a commercial private space travel would increase what we already have and what kind of effect it would have on global warming? What kind of carbon footprints? How much gas would it take to make one flight of say - space tourists?

Mr. MUSK: Well, there's quite a bit of energy needed to get to orbit. However, the number of flights that take place is so tiny that it's not even - it doesn't even factor in terms of carbon emissions. Also as you point out, we buy a carbon offsets to, you know, for all of our launches. Actually, we're in excess in the carbon that we create, so I'm very much an environmentalist. So I mean, even if we didn't buy up carbon offsets, there's really such a tiny, tiny portion of the carbon that's created. It doesn't even register.

FLATOW: Thank you, Crystal. Could you make your rocket fuel out of algae like Richard Branson once told? Make his jet fuel out of it?

Mr. MUSK: Yeah. It's something conceivable, you could make - the fuel we use is rocket profound(ph) grade kerosene, which is basically a high-purity jet fuel. And so it's - our vehicle taking off is like a medium sized jet take off. I mean, that's about as much fuel as we use - equivalent to one medium-sized jet plane.

FLATOW: Bauer(ph) in Second Life asks, why did the first attempts fail and how much did the failures cost all together? To whom? And why do these ones work? I'll add that.

Mr. MUSK: Sure. Well, we had basically three design-related issues with the first three flights. And by the way, flights two and three made it to space. I try to distinguish between orbit and space because flights two and three certainly made it well beyond the boundary of space. They just did not reach full orbital velocity and it's much, much harder to reach full orbital velocity than it is to get to space. It only takes - to get to the boundary of space, you'll only need about, say, two percent of the energy you need to get to orbit.

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. MUSK: So if you compare the energy capability of our vehicles with say, SpaceShipOne, which is what was used for one of the several (unintelligible) or SpaceShipTwo, which is what Virgin Galactic will be doing, then, you know, we're about 50 times the energy of those vehicles. But for flight one, the issue was basically a corroded nut and that was because we'd inadvertently used a stress corrosion-prone alloy of aluminum, and it happens to be in a high corrosion environment. So our test-run was in sort of a normal environment, but out there on the island, it's a high-corrosion environment so that made our - you know, we encountered an issue that we just didn't see on the test, which was a very rapid corrosion of a nut.

So we took corrective action after that. Then flight two, the problem was that - what was with the control of the second stage, which is a tricky thing to figure out because it's going at - it goes from Mach 10 to Mach 25 in a vacuum, and accelerating from just under one G to over five Gs. So there's no way to really test that well and you can't really test that on the ground. You can only model it. And unfortunately, we had modeled it incorrectly.

FLATOW: Hang on. Let me be jump in and remind everybody that this is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. Sorry about that. Go ahead.

Mr. MUSK: No problem. Anyway, and so the corrective action there was to install slash baffles, which basically prevent the liquid oxygen in that liquid oxygen tank from sloshing around, and also to change some of the gains and the algorithms in the control system. And the problem is a bit like - if you're - imagine, if you're trying to run carrying a bowl of soup.

FLATOW: It sloshes around a lot.

Mr. MUSK: Yeah - and yeah.

FLATOW: Let's go to number three. What happened with number three?

Mr. MUSK: So number three - number three would have worked if we had kept the same first stage engine as flight two. But we upgraded the engine because we wanted to use the engine on flight three that we planned to use in our big vehicle, Falcon 9, and get flight history on that before using it on our big vehicle. And unfortunately, the thrust transient, which is for - during shutdown, which is basically the rate at which the thrust- how the thrust decays over time. It was a much longer thrust decay than the old engine. And so after we separated the stages, the first stage actually still had residual thrust and basically kept on going forward and rear-ended the second stage.

FLATOW: I hate it when that happens.

Mr. MUSK: Right.

FLATOW: Yeah, (unintelligible).

Mr. MUSK: No kidding.

FLATOW: So you fixed that through that for number four.

Mr. MUSK: We've basically made a very small timing change to basically extend the time from when we initiate managing cut off, to second stage, to the stage of separation. We just increased that by a few seconds, and solved the problem, then we got through all of it.

FLATOW: Yeah. So for all those people who thought they couldn't understand rocket science, there it is. And it's just about a minute and a half. I got about 30 seconds left. Elon, where do you go next?

Mr. MUSK: Well, we have a bunch of exciting things happening with Falcon 9. We're going to have Falcon 9 at Cape Canaveral in December and we hope to do our first launch around the middle of this year. And then followed shortly by our first launch for NASA, which will be a test flight of our Dragon Spacecraft. So that's going to be very exciting. I think, you know, the SpaceX is really going to make a big difference to the space program and make sure we're not reliant on the Russians after 2010.

FLATOW: We'll see you at the Cape.

Mr. MUSK: All right.

FLATOW: Elon Musk, who is the founder of SpaceX and the company's CEO and CTO. Thanks for taking time to be with us today. Good luck to you.

Mr. MUSK: Thank you.

FLATOW: We're going to take a short break. Come back, change gears one more time and talk about - well, things that appear to be what they are, but they're not really. See, you don't even appear to know what I'm talking about. But you'll find out more after this break. So stay with us. We'll be right back.

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