Last night, Sunday, August 5, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, lots of people hugged and held their arms high to celebrate a ballsy, historic achievement in space travel. Ten years after the project was launched, NASA's huge Curiosity rover touched down safely on Mars, and the odds of this finishing successfully were quite thin. The 1-ton rover needed to be helped onto the planet's surface by a rocket-powered sky crane, which then flew off to crash land a safe distance away as part of the scheduled plan. Now, the Curiosity has the job of exploring the planet for the next two years looking for carbon-based molecules and other evidence that life exists on Mars.
While watching TV coverage and receiving excited text messages from a friend, I was reminded of two people I bet were also watching it – Dr. Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors.
Diamandis is known for pushing advanced technology competition, such as the Automotive X Prize, where project teams from universities and automotive R&D competed over two years for a piece of the $10 million prize and the recognition that comes with it. The X Prize Foundation honors innovative technologies "to drive radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity," such as reducing America's oil addiction and climate change. Diamandis believes so much in advanced technology, he's leading a group of supporters (such as Google executives) on the Planetary Resources project. It's a bold venture to explore and extract materials from asteroids that could be valuable resources for the future of batteries, fuel cells, and other electronic devices.
As for Elon Musk, he's finding time away from marketing the all-electric Tesla Model S, to oversee his other company, SpaceX. On May 22, the Falcon 9 rocket, built by Musk-led Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, lifted the unmanned Dragon capsule into orbit. The space supply ship, the first private venture of its kind, left for the International Space Station with half a ton of provisions. Things went well enough that on August 3rd, NASA awarded SpaceX $440 million to be part of a project to design and develop the next generation of human spaceflight capabilities.
It's probably not a coincidence that Musk, Diamandis, and the project teams needed to make it work, see a correlation between space travel and advanced vehicle technologies.