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SpaceX reports milestone, details future plans

Elon Musk, who's also chairman of electric car maker Tesla Motors, talks about why he founded SpaceX and its progress so far.

PASADENA, Calif.--When PayPal founder Elon Musk entered the commercial space business in 2002, he was apparently not welcomed with open arms by the old guard.

But here at the 50 Years in Space conference Friday, Musk was in a much different position with his Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which is developing a series of rocket launchers and has a space-transportation contract with NASA.

"Thanks for being in the business, you give us fresh life. We need it," Robert Dickman, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said following Musk's morning speech at CalTech.

During his self-described "uncorporate" talk, Musk reported good news for SpaceX, based in El Segundo, Calif. He said the company reached a milestone Thursday by finishing the primary engine for Falcon 9, its larger rocket launcher with which it will conduct a few operational lift-offs with satellites next year. (Musk reportedly said earlier in the week that Falcon 9 could launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station next fall.)

SpaceX has launched two of its Falcon 1 rockets from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, but the two tests fell flat. The company plans a third launch of Falcon 1 early next year.

Musk said his goal with SpaceX is to reduce the cost and improve the reliability of space transportation. SpaceX will launch payloads like satellites into space at a third of the cost of its domestic competition and at half of the cost of its international competition, according to Musk.

"What SpaceX is trying to do is to put the cost of and reliability of space transportation on a path that you've seen in other technological areas," he said. "The real potential for Falcon 9 is reusability."

According to SpaceX's Web site, Falcon 9 is a "two-stage, liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene (RP-1) powered launch vehicle. It uses the same engines, structural architecture (with a wider diameter), avionics and launch system" as the company's first rocket launcher, Falcon 1.

Musk said that when he was studying physics as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, he thought about what mattered most to the future of humanity. His answers were "the Internet, a transition to sustainable energy economy and space exploration." And Musk has clearly bet his time and money on all three--by founding PayPal, as chairman of electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors, and by establishing and investing his own money in SpaceX.

"For the first time in the Earth's 4 billion year history we have the ability to extend life beyond Earth," he said. "The reason I founded SpaceX was to try in a little way to make that happen. I don't think SpaceX will do it all, that would be ludicrous. But we're playing a role in helping private and government space exploration happen."