Eighteen months ago, Elon Musk launched a 50-lb. wheel of cheese into space. Really.
Musk was preparing for the first orbital test of his brand-new Dragon spacecraft atop his brand-new Falcon 9 rocket, and it seemed a shame to send the ship up empty. So he drove to nearby Beverly Hills, Calif., and bought the biggest piece of cheese he could find; then he and a few of his engineers at the Space Exploration Technologies Co., or SpaceX, rigged it into place inside the capsule and sent it off. The Dragon made it into orbit and came home safely--becoming the first vehicle launched by a private company to achieve such a feat--and today the cheese (an earthy Le Broure, in case you were wondering) rests in a display case just off the factory floor of the SpaceX facility in Hawthorne. The Soviets had Laika the dog. The U.S. had Ham the chimp. Musk has his wheel of space cheese.
Last month Musk had much more serious business on his mind. Another Dragon spacecraft was flying, this one to deliver half a ton of provisions and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS). The ship launched successfully on May 22 and, in another first for the private sector, docked with the station three days later. On May 31, Dragon came home, landing in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California, precisely on target and two minutes ahead of schedule.
"Splashdown successful!!" announced Musk via Twitter from his front-row seat in his own mission control inside the 50,000-sq.-ft. SpaceX factory. "Sending fast boat to Dragon."
Never mind the giants of NASA's magnificent past, men with jet fuel in their blood who over just eight years in the 1960s guided the U.S. from a standing start to the surface of the moon. One of the biggest players in the American space program today is a 41-year-old South African entrepreneur with undergraduate degrees in physics and business from the University of Pennsylvania, a background in e-commerce and not a lick of formal training in aerospace engineering.
But here's what Musk does have: 1,800 employees, birds on the pad and billions of dollars in contracts to launch payloads for customers around the world--including NASA. Other aerospace companies launch payloads for profit too, but those payloads are all satellites that need only to be trucked to orbit. Musk has both his own fleet of rockets and his own working spacecraft: a navigable, habitable machine designed to fly and maneuver and dance and dock and hold an atmosphere and support a crew--and travel not just in orbit but into deep space.
"It has a new-car smell," said astronaut Don Pettit after Dragon docked with the ISS and he opened the hatch and peered inside. Very soon, that car got sold. "We became a customer today," announced Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's commercial crew and cargo program, after the Dragon splashed down safely. Little wonder: SpaceX, a mere corporation, had just accomplished something only sovereign nations had done before.