This is an exciting story to follow.

All very impressive. But what really sets SpaceX apart, and has made it a magnet for controversy, are its prices: As advertised on the company’s Web site, a Falcon 9 launch costs an average of $57 million, which works out to less than $2,500 per pound to orbit. That’s significantly less than what other U.S. launch companies typically charge, and even the manufacturer of China’s low-cost Long March rocket (which the U.S. has banned importing) says it cannot beat SpaceX’s pricing. By 2014, the company’s next rocket, the Falcon Heavy, aims to lower the cost to $1,000 per pound. And Musk insists that’s just the beginning. “Our performance will increase and our prices will decline over time,” he writes on SpaceX’s Web site, “as is the case with every other technology.” Like the Chinese, many observers in this country are wondering how SpaceX can deliver what it promises.

After nearly a decade of struggling to reach this point, Musk isn’t about to reveal the finer details of how he and his privately held company have created the Falcon and Dragon. They don’t even file patents, Musk says, because “we try not to provide a recipe by which China can copy us and we find our inventions coming right back at us.” But he talks freely about SpaceX’s approach to rocket design, which stems from one core principle: Simplicity enables both reliability and low cost. Think of cars, Musk says. “Is a Ferrari more reliable than a Toyota Corolla or a Honda Civic?”