Q & A with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk: Master of Private Space Dragons
SpaceX's Falcon 9 is being readied for its debut flight in 2010. PayPal co-founder turned rocketeer Elon Musk has backed the venture.
Credit: SpaceX

When the commercial rockets built by the private spaceflight company SpaceX blast off, there is one man at the helm ? SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

That's the case for this week's first launch of SpaceX's new Dragon space capsule, which is set to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida today (Dec. 8) between 9 a.m. and 12:22 p.m. EST (1400-1722 GMT).

Elon Musk, a veteran Internet entrepreneur and millionaire, created SpaceX in 2002 using funding from his previous work as the co-founder of the online payment system PayPal. He is Hawthorne, Calif.-based company's chief rocket designer (with a physics degree from Wharton) and has steered the company into a $1.6 billion deal with NASA to provide 12 cargo flights to the International Space Station using Dragon spacecraft like the one launching this week.

Now, Musk and SpaceX are launching the first demonstration flight for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program, or COTS. SPACE.com caught up with Musk via e-mail to learn his thoughts on the upcoming Dragon test:

SPACE.com: SpaceX is launching its second Falcon 9 rocket since the successful debut test flight in June, but now you're flying a Dragon spacecraft too. What's been your biggest challenge for this major test flight?

Musk: The Dragon spacecraft, although much smaller, is just as complex as the Falcon 9. 

In addition to being the first flight of an operational Dragon, there are many new systems and elements that will be tested for the first time in space ? structural integrity of the pressure vessel, precision firing of the 18 SpaceX Draco engines, telemetry, guidance, navigation and control systems, the heat shield, and parachutes?to name a few. [INFOGRAPHIC: Inside Look at SpaceX's Dragon Capsule]

This COTS1 demonstration flight is the first attempt by a commercial company to recover a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit.

SPACE.com: For some of our readers who may not have been following commercial spaceflight news, how would you summarize the significance of this task?

Musk: This is would represent an important milestone in the history of space, heralding the dawn of a new era where private companies can now bring back spacecraft from orbit.  Successful recovery of Dragon would also bode very well for future astronaut transport.

Once Shuttle retires, Dragon will be the only spacecraft capability of returning humans to Earth apart from Soyuz.  ATV (Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle), HTV (Japan's H-2 Transfer Vehicle) and the Orbital Sciences system only carry cargo up.  [Top 10 Private Spaceships Becoming Reality]

Since a launch escape system is not needed after ascent, in principle Dragon could very easily be converted to a lifeboat with more than twice the capacity of Soyuz (seven in our case vs. three for Soyuz).

I also think COTS flights in general represent a key step towards America having a space program that is both sustainable and inspirational. At a time when most technology-based products have seen ever-increasing capability and reliability while simultaneously reducing costs, launch vehicles today are little changed from those of 40 years ago. 

This trend cannot continue or eventually our activities in space with dwindle away and die entirely. The COTS program has already shown that a private/government partnership can be fast, cost effective and still meet all of NASA's safety requirements.

SPACE.com: SpaceX received the first-ever FAA license to re-enter spaceships from Earth orbit last month was a big milestone. How would you sum up that accomplishment and what it means for the future of SpaceX?

Musk: We appreciate receiving the license, but of course what really matters is actually doing this successfully and becoming the first commercial company to come back from orbit safely. 

Only five countries and the European Space Agency have achieved this level of technology. Then there are the other accomplishments ? like testing our PICA-X heat shield, developed in close partnership with NASA. 

This is the most advanced heat shield ever to fly. It is so powerful that it can potentially be used hundreds of times for Earth orbit re-entry with only minor degradation each time (like an extreme version of a Formula 1 car's carbon brake pads) and can even withstand the much higher heat of a moon or Mars velocity reentry. 

We think Dragon is a viable option for deep space missions in competition with the Lockheed Orion and hope NASA will start to consider Dragon for potential flight to asteroids, the moon or even Mars one day.

SPACE.com: With the shuttle program coming to a close next year, how vital do you see these demonstration flights? What impact could they have on the future of the private spaceflight industry?

Musk: I think there is a tendency to treat each mission as make or break when a new company like SpaceX joins the field, but no one flight is that important. 

Most of the successful launch vehicles experience a failure in one of their first three flights before going on to be very successful. These are test flights, and so the information that we gain from them is far more important than whether or not we meet all of our mission objectives. 

We now have Falcon 9 and Dragon in steady production at approximately one F9/Dragon every three months. The F9 production rate doubles to one every six weeks in 2012. A few failures along the way will at most result in a slowdown of a few months.

SPACE.com: A lot of our readers often wonder how close we are to having private companies, like SpaceX, embark on routine cargo-delivery runs to the International Space Station. How close is that goal, as well as the idea of private trips for astronauts?

Musk: SpaceX hopes to carry cargo to the International Space Station and back around summer next year, with regular servicing flights following on roughly three to four month intervals. 

Back at our facility in Hawthorne we are already busy working on the next COTS flight. Given that COTS 2/3 requires completing additional development work on proximity operations and berthing, plus final certification by the NASA ISS safety review board, it is difficult to predict the launch date precisely.

SpaceX could be ready to carry astronauts to the International Space Station within three years of receiving a contract from NASA. 

But Congress needs to act in support commercial crew for that to happen. After the Space Shuttle retires, the United States will be forced to spend $56 million a person to fly American astronauts to the International Space Station on the Russian Soyuz. 

SpaceX has publicly committed to a price of no more than $20 million (2010 dollars) per seat provided that NASA buys for four flights per year of our seven-seat Dragon. That would allow 28 astronaut visits to Station per year (same as current Shuttle manifest), which is really the minimum needed to make full use of all the operational labs onboard.

You can follow SPACE.com Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Visit SPACE.com for complete coverage of SpaceX's debut Dragon spacecraft launch.