On Dec. 8, 2010, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, launched the first privately owned ship ever to return safely from Earth orbit. The Dragon capsule, propelled to space atop a two-stage SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, had just made history, but its brash, young founder, PayPal entrepreneur and Tesla motors CEO Elon Musk, didn't rest on his laurels: Not long after, he made the surprising claim that, within three years, the company could send astronauts to space at $20 million a pop.
Can Musk make good on his assurances that SpaceX can easily convert the Dragon cargo container into a seven-seat space minivan? Experts are skeptical. After all, transitioning a pod from cargo hauler to crew cab requires more than bolting in some bucket seats and wiring up a climate control system.
SpaceX's late disclosure of engine overheating issues experienced during the December 2010 test flight has fueled further criticism [source: Kramer].
Whether Musk makes his deadline or not, SpaceX's successes thus far, added to its $1.6 billion contract with NASA to haul cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), equate to a major player in the commercial space race. In fulfilling the contract, the company hopes to set another record, by becoming the first private space company to send an uncrewed spacecraft to the ISS in late March 2012 [source: MSNBC].
SpaceX isn't the only company planning its first trip to the ISS in 2012, however.