Elon Musk: ‘No clear theory’ for reason behind SpaceX rocket explosion

SpaceX founder Elon Musk responds to questions at the ISSR&D conference in Boston.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk responds to questions at the ISSR&D conference in Boston.

Last week’s stunning explosion of a SpaceX rocket bound for the International Space Station was “a huge blow” to the private spaceflight company, which is still trying to sort out the reasons for the failure, chief executive Elon Musk said.

“There’s still no clear theory that fits with all the data,” Musk said Tuesday at the International Space Station Research and Development conference in Boston.

The conference, bursting with space junkies, was something of a homecoming for Musk: With a $2.6 billion contract from NASA to ferry humans into space and the first private space company to launch into low-earth orbit and return, he has done more for the space industry than than perhaps any single person in the last decade.

Musk’s audience Tuesday included entrepreneurs, researchers, astronauts, and NASA staff who, like Musk, look to space and the low-orbit science lab aboard the International Space Station for answers to humanity’s pressing problems and keys to its future.

Despite the friendly surroundings, Musk lacked some of his characteristic joie de vivre as he discussed the failure of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on June 28 with Michael Suffredini, manager of NASA’s Space Station Office.

But the famous entrepreneur, who also founded electric car company Tesla and co-founded payments company PayPal, was still able to poke some fun at his grand projects. Responding to an audience question, Musk said that space wasn’t really a great business to be in — and, come to think of it, neither are cars.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft break apart shortly after liftoff On June 28. John Raoux/AP

Through a hyperactive Twitter account and disarming candor at public talks, Musk has often referenced his grand vision for SpaceX: to turn humans into what he calls a “multi-planet species.”

By building reusable rockets and transport capsules, the goal is to drive down the cost and and raise the frequency of space travel. “Where we can send large numbers of people and cargo to other planets — that’s what needs to happen for humanity to have a great future in space,” Musk said.

Musk’s other ventures have been comparatively grounded, Suffredini pointed out. PayPal and Zip2, a previous Musk company that offered a business directory for media companies, were both software-related ventures — so why space, why now?

Surviving on multiple planets, Musk said, was going to be key to our future as a species. “I don’t like risk for risk’s sake,” he said. “You have to take big chances for a big positive outcome.”

But key to SpaceX’s role as an industry first-timer will be getting it right, he said — if SpaceX fails as a private space company, it will be encouragement to others to just not try.

Musk also moved fluidly between jokes about the upcoming movie “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon — Musk does not have a cameo, he clarified — and outlining in intricate detail the technical limitations of Internet powered by fiber-optic cables.

Part of SpaceX’s plan next year is to test Internet delivery by cheap space satellites, though it’s not alone in attempting that. Oddly, Musk hopes to move slowly on that front. “A lot of companies have tried this and broken their pick on it,” he said.

But he was comparatively optimistic about business options if a route to Mars was established.

“If there was affordable transport to a place like Mars, the entrepreneurial opportunities would be phenomenal,” he said. “There would be people who would want to create everything from the first pizza joint to the first iron ore factory.”

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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