Updated at 11:51 a.m. ET on September 22, 2021.
On launch day for SpaceX’s first space tourists, Elon Musk was here at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch them go, clapping as private astronauts walked up to the Teslas who would take them to get dressed. And after landing safely, after making about 45 orbits around the Earth, Musk was here again to congratulate them in person.
The Inspiration4 mission marked SpaceX’s fourth successful manned space flight, and a SpaceX official said the company wanted to fly paying customers “three, four, five, six times a year at least.” In this era’s space race among private companies, Musk’s SpaceX took a lead on virtually every measure except one, giving the CEO a lift above the atmosphere. Branson did it, Bezos did it, so why hasn’t Musk stolen yet?
He is, after all, the only person in the world who could, if he really wanted to, fly his own rocket into orbit. He could spend a whole week on the Dragon capsule, just admiring the view. And it could really show off the other space billionaires.
Musk filed a deposit for future travel on Branson’s Virgin Galactic, but, like Bezos’ Blue Origin, the company only offers suborbital flights. (And Blue Origin argued that Virgin Galactic’s travels don’t really matter, as Blue Origin goes higher.) While flying on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, Musk could think of himself as an astronaut, no doubt. Surely his staff could prepare a spacesuit his size quickly, and Musk is not known to be risk averse; in 2015 he was standing on top of an airplane flying in a waterfall called “wing walk. “And yet the summer of space billionaires has passed and Musk has remained firmly on Earth.
Only Musk knows why he didn’t go to space, and he’s a difficult person to reach. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment, and Musk did not acknowledge a question I posed on Twitter, where he sometimes responds directly to reporters.
But Garrett Reisman, a retired NASA astronaut and engineering professor at the University of Southern California, shared an anecdote with me that offers a hint of explanation. Reisman is a senior advisor to SpaceX, where he previously worked on the company’s program to transport NASA astronauts. At first, Reisman met with Musk to discuss some details regarding future crewed flights. Boeing, which was developing its own system with help from NASA, had decided that its first test flight would carry a NASA astronaut and an astronaut employed by Boeing. (This theft has not yet taken place due to Equipment and software issues.) Reisman said a similar arrangement “could be good for morale” at SpaceX: The chance to become a corporate astronaut would surely energize the workforce. “And he looked me right in the eye and he said, ‘Why would anyone want to go into low earth orbit? “”
Musk looked completely serious. Reisman, who had spent over 100 days in space, replied, “Well, I kind of enjoyed that.”
“I’m sure he would have a good time,” Reisman told me. But what Reisman took away from this exchange is that Musk doesn’t find it all that impressive to reach low Earth orbit, where hundreds of satellites, the International Space Station, and most of the astronauts who have been in the space have spent their time. Musk certainly understands the issues and he wants SpaceX to do spaceflight well. After the first astronauts to test the Dragon returned home last year, beating Boeing to the milestone, Musk said he was not “very religious, but I prayed for this one.” . But it has always been focused on the Moon and Mars. In Musk’s mind, humanity should already have a base on the lunar surface, and he founded SpaceX two decades ago because he was appalled to NASA’s lack of progress on a mission to Mars. Musk’s goal remains to reach and build a city on Mars and, as he often says, “to make life multiplanetary.”
Reisman has said that if launching Dragon’s next flight meant moving closer to that future, Musk will. “He’s not just interested in the thrill,” Reisman said. Musk has noted in the past that he intended to someday fly on a Dragon. But perhaps it’s more his style of choosing a journey that signifies a major milestone in human expansion into space. A few former SpaceX employees I spoke with suggested Musk could board one of the first crewed flights of Starship, the spacecraft SpaceX is developing to reach the moon and Mars. It would certainly be a little more important.
Unlike Bezos and Branson, Musk has nothing urgent to prove about the capacity of his rockets and capsules. SpaceX is one of the world’s most trusted spaceflight companies, and its Falcon 9 rocket is considered a workhorse in the industry. Bezos wanted to prove that if Blue Origin was safe for him, it would be safe for his customers, but Musk has already demonstrated the safety of SpaceX with the launch of professional astronauts. Neither is Musk the showman Branson always was and Bezos has become – he’s more than likely to go down rocket engine jargon-laden tangents.
Plus, Musk still has too much business here on Earth. On Monday, shortly after meeting the Inspiration4 crew in Florida, he boarded his private jet and returned to South Texas, where engineers and technicians are working non-stop on Starship. Musk wants to launch a prototype into orbit by the end of this year. At the same time, Musk is pushing the development of electric cars at his other beloved company, Tesla. Unlike SpaceX, Tesla is a publicly traded company with a board of directors. And while Musk was not the betterCEO behaved, space travel would reach a whole new rogue level. Bezos resigned as CEO of Amazon days before his flight this summer, and although he Recount CNN that he “could have made this flight as CEO of Amazon and that it would have been good,” there was still speculation that his suborbital journey was deemed too risky for someone in his position. Orbital spaceflight is another story, with a lot more risk. I’ve spoken with several former SpaceX employees for this story, and they suspect Musk probably won’t be flying into space until he feels that Tesla and SpaceX can do without his personal contributions. While SpaceX’s crewed missions have so far gone well, the job is still dangerous – rockets can explode, after all – and Musk may have calculated that the risks, however small, outweigh the risks. potential benefits.
Even if SpaceX reaches Mars during his lifetime, Musk likely won’t be one of the first people to surface. He owns noted that he “would like to die on Mars, but not under the impact”, and the first visits will be the riskiest. And it’s hard to imagine Musk, who is known for his shockingly long work weeks, retiring from his other activities, or even taking a week’s vacation in low earth orbit. If he stays there long enough, whoever could profoundly reshape humanity’s presence in space might not get there himself.
But you never know with Musk. “He can announce tomorrow that he’s going to jump on the next Dragon and go to the space station,” Reisman said. “Who knows? I gave up trying to predict exactly what Elon is going to do a long time ago.