Elon Musk is the South African-born, Canadian-American CEO and CTO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and the chief architect behind Tesla Motors. Musk, who has become a sort of lightning rod in the investing and tech communities, taught himself computer programming at an early age and, following his initial foray into education, dropped out of Stanford's PhD program in applied physics after just two days to pursue his entrepreneurial vision of the future.
Now Musk's SpaceX has a long-term contract from NASA to deliver cargo (and eventually personnel) to the International Space Station and is riding high following a series of successful unmanned runs to the space station and back over the past year.
The vehicle that made it happen, the Dragon version 1, is being replaced by the second version which will include seats for seven human passengers. The first version of Dragon became an essential blueprint demonstrating ways in which 3D printing can be used by engineers to construct the next generation of extraterrestrial vehicles.
The second iteration of the Dragon will feature a considerably more powerful engine, one SpaceX has dubbed the SuperDraco, which the vehicle will use to land.
"Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods. SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before," Musk says.
SpaceX has recently completed qualification testing for the SuperDraco engine. Each SuperDraco produces 16,000 pounds of thrust which astronauts can direct with precise control to bring to bear their enormous power, and the SuperDraco engine chamber was manufactured using state-of-the-art direct metal laser sintering (DMLS).
The engine was printed from Inconel, a superalloy which boasts both the high strength and durability to ensure the reliability of the vehicle as a whole. A nickel-chromium-based material made by Special Metals Corporation, it's typically used in applications where it's likely to meet high temperature requirements. First developed in the 1940s by teams of researchers working for Wiggin Alloys in Hereford, England, Inconel alloys are highly resistant to oxidation and corrosion and those properties make Inconel well suited to survival in extreme environments where high pressures and extensive kinetic energy are present.
The SpaceX launch system is a great technological leap forward with its eight integrated SuperDraco engines incorporated into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft which will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust.
SpaceX, a private company owned by management and employees, has more than 3,000 employees in California, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Florida.