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SpaceX's Dragon makes historic space station dock
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) May 25, 2012


Internet entrepreneur hits paydirt in space, autos
San Francisco (AFP) May 25, 2012 - It has been quite a week for Elon Musk. The onetime Internet entrepreneur saw his firm SpaceX on Friday become the first commercial outfit to rendezvous its own spacecraft with the International Space Station.

On Tuesday, his Tesla Motors venture announced it would start delivery of its new "premium" electric sedan next month, ahead of schedule.

The 40-year-old South African native has channeled a dot.com fortune into a series of ambitious ventures.

Besides SpaceX and Tesla, Musk heads up SolarCity, a company which makes solar panels for homes and businesses. And he operates his own foundation focusing on education, clean energy and child health.

Born to a South African father and Canadian mother, Musk moved to Canada in his late teens and then to the United States, earning bachelor's degrees in physics and business from the University of Pennsylvania.

After graduating, Musk abandoned plans to pursue further studies at Stanford University and started Zip2, a company which made online publishing software for the media industry.

He banked his first millions before the age of 30 when he sold Zip2 to US computer maker Compaq for more than $300 million in 1999.

Musk's next company, X.com, eventually merged with PayPal, the online payments firm bought by Internet auction giant eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.

Over six feet (1.8 meters) tall with a high forehead and a piercing gaze, Musk sees possibilities for entrepreneurs who take risks.

"I think it is a case where sometimes the little guy wins," he said in an AFP interview, referring to others in the private space race including aerospace giant Boeing.

In 2002, Musk launched SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corp., where he serves as chief executive and chief technology officer, with plans to develop low-cost rockets.

Musk, who has invested $100 million of his estimated $2 billion fortune in SpaceX, is clearly proud of how far the firm has come despite his lack of space experience, and says he hopes to develop technology to go to Mars.

The US space agency NASA contracted SpaceX to help deliver cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station while a new generation of space vehicles is being developed to replace the space shuttle.

Musk hopes to eventually send a manned mission to Mars, but space flight is just one of his many passions.

Jon Favreau, director of "Iron Man," calls Musk a modern-day "Renaissance man."

In an article for Time, Favreau said that he and actor Robert Downey Jr. modeled the main character in the movie -- "genius billionaire Tony Stark" -- after the Silicon Valley star.

Musk told Time that his goal was to be "involved in things that are going to make a significant difference to the future of humanity.

"That was the motivation for getting involved in the Internet and then sustainable energy with Tesla and SolarCity," he said.

Musk founded Palo Alto, California-based Tesla in 2003 to manufacture "affordable electric vehicles for mainstream consumers."

Tesla's first vehicle, the Tesla Roadster, is a high-performance sports car which costs over $100,000 and can go nearly 250 miles (400 kilometers) on a single charge.

Its owners have included former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hollywood star George Clooney. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are investors in the company.

Tesla said Tuesday it would begin deliveries of "the world's first premium electric sedan" on June 22, slightly ahead of schedule.

SpaceX on Friday became the first commercial outfit to send its own cargo capsule to the International Space Station, heralding the start of a new era for private spaceflight.

The berthing marked the climax of the California-based company's demonstration mission to become the first to restore US access to the space outpost after NASA retired the three-decade shuttle program last year.

With no humans on board, the Dragon capsule is delivering about a half ton of supplies and science experiments for the ISS, and aims to return a slightly larger load of gear to Earth on May 31.

"There was so much that could have gone wrong, and it went right," SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk, a billionaire Internet entrepreneur, told reporters after the berthing was complete.

"This is really going to be recognized as a significantly historical step forward in space travel, and hopefully the first of many to come."

The Dragon is toting 521 kilograms (1,148 pounds) of goodies for the space lab, including food, supplies, computers, utilities and science experiments. It plans to return a 660-kilogram load to Earth.

The hatches are set to open at 7:40 am (1140 GMT) on Saturday so that the unloading can begin, NASA said.

"It looks like we got us a Dragon by the tail," said US astronaut Don Pettit, who was operating the Canadian-built robotic arm from the space station as it reached out and captured the unmanned SpaceX capsule at 9:56 am (1356 GMT).

The capsule was installed on the station's Harmony module by European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers at 11:52 am (1552 GMT), and the berthing was complete when NASA astronaut Joe Acaba bolted the Dragon on at 12:02 pm (1602 GMT), NASA said.

"I can't tell you how proud we are to have been a part of this historic moment," said ISS program manager Mike Suffredini, adding that the spacecraft had "performed nearly flawlessly" since its launch on Tuesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

John Holdren, assistant to President Barack Obama for science and technology policy, hailed the mission as "an achievement of historic scientific and technological significance and a key milestone in President Obama's vision for America's continued leadership in space."

The US space shuttle program ended in 2011, leaving only Russia capable of carrying astronauts and cargo to the ISS and back to Earth.

The space agencies of Japan and Europe have supply ships that can ferry cargo to the ISS but cannot return to Earth intact, and those missions are set to end in the coming years, Suffredini said.

That means SpaceX and its competitor Orbital Sciences Corporation would become the chief cargo servicers of the $100 billion space station, which is set to remain operational until 2020.

"Between those two spacecraft, they will supply the lion's share of the cargo to the International Space Station for the life of the station," Suffredini said.

The berthing mission opens the way for SpaceX's $1.6 billion contract with NASA to supply the space station and return cargo to Earth in 12 missions over the coming years.

Suffredini said the next cargo supply mission by SpaceX is tentatively set for September.

Orbital Sciences also has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to supply the space station and is scheduled for its first test flight in August, followed by a demonstration mission to the ISS in December, Suffredini said.

SpaceX hopes its gumdrop-shaped Dragon capsule will be able to carry astronauts to the ISS in about three years' time. Until then, US astronauts must pay Russia about $63 million per seat aboard the Soyuz.

SpaceX and a handful of other companies are using their own funds but are also being helped in their endeavors with seed money from NASA to build cargo and crew capability.

SpaceX is the brainchild of Musk, a 40-year-old billionaire who made his fortune founding a company that later merged with the PayPal online service, bought by Internet auction giant eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.

Today he leads SpaceX, Tesla Motors -- a venture marketing electric cars -- and SolarCity, a company that makes solar panels for homes and businesses.

Musk said alcohol had been prohibited from the Hawthorne, California headquarters -- where the average age of SpaceX employees is 30 -- until the berthing mission was complete.

"But now that things are good I think we will probably have a bit of champagne and have some fun, yeah," he said to hoots and hollers from employees gathered around.

"It is best to be very sober in these circumstances until the deed is done."

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LAUNCH PAD
SpaceX makes final approach to space station
Washington (AFP) May 25, 2012
SpaceX's Dragon capsule on Friday made its final approach toward the International Space Station, edging closer to the climax of its landmark mission to latch on to the orbiting research lab. By 6:30 am (1030 GMT), the unmanned Dragon was 240 meters (yards) from the $100 billion dollar space outpost "and continuing to close in," NASA said on its live broadcast of the event. Astronauts ab ... read more


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