Chicago Tribune: Wowed by Elon Musk

JAN. 19, 2016 — A rocketship that blew apart after landing, and a self-driving electric car that sometimes surprised passengers by veering off the highway onto exit ramps.

If you caught only those news snippets about two of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s projects, you might think his businesses specialize in 1.) failure and 2.) scaring the bejeebers out of people. Not at all. With each setback, Musk and other innovators like him are pushing hard on the frontiers of technology in spectacular ways.

On Sunday, Musk’s SpaceX space transportation firm launched an unmanned rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and deposited a scientific satellite into orbit. So far, so good. The trickier part of the mission was the return flight: Musk’s vision is to design a reusable booster rocket, which requires guiding that part of the craft back to earth and landing on target.

The spindly rocket gently touches down vertically as if in a Buck Rogers movie. Then, uh oh, the thing slowly topples over. It slams into the launch surface and explodes. So close. (And a spectacular miss.)

Keep in mind what Musk was trying to do, and how close to success he came: SpaceX was trying to land the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster rocket on an unmanned barge in the Pacific Ocean. Musk said in a tweet: “Definitely harder to land on a ship. Similar to an aircraft carrier vs land: much smaller target area, that’s also translating & rotating.”

But that’s not even what undid his rocket. One of the ship’s four legs apparently failed to lock, a mishap that could have happened in a landing on solid earth.

Over the past year, two SpaceX rockets muffed their attempts to land at sea, while another Falcon 9 blew up in flight, destroying supplies headed for the International Space Station. Those failures heightened the drama for Dec. 21, when a Falcon 9 launched into space and deployed a load of commercial satellites. Then success! The booster stage of the rocket returned to earth and nailed the landing at Florida’sCape Canaveral.

Now we’re getting somewhere. “It really quite dramatically improves my confidence that a city on Mars is possible,” Musk said afterward. “I mean, that’s what all of this is about.”

Reusable rockets open the heavens to new forms of exploration because they are much less expensive than a traditional one-way ticket to space. Experts and visionaries see all kinds of breakthroughs, from asteroid mining and space tourism to the creation of satellite-based Internet services. One key to commercial success will be landings at sea, because it provides launch and recovery flexibility.

Back here on earth, we noticed another of Musk’s trials and errors. He built Tesla into a premier electric car company, but he’s now in the race to perfect a driverless car, part of a pack that includes everyone from Google to General Motors. Musk recently talked up Tesla’s advanced cruise control — which allows the car to steer itself down the highway, change lanes and adjust speed — as “probably better than a person right now” at driving.

Probably? The New York Times says the company found and fixed a software bug that caused the car to veer onto offramps. One Tesla driver who experienced the bug said Tesla Autopilot was awesome and pleasurable, with um, frightening moments too.

So maybe we think twice before joining Elon Musk tomorrow on a driverless jaunt, and we’ll be patient about rocket rides too. But we can’t wait to see where Musk and the other innovators are going.

By Chicago Tribune